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What does “an eye for an eye” mean? Most of the time when people use this term they mean payback. We are a world that is built on giving payback. Movies are built upon the idea of getting people back. Today the idea of “an eye for eye” means retaliation or retribution. It appears from reading Matthew 5:38-42 that the Jews in the first century also had this idea. Is this what the Law meant when God taught the principle of an eye for an eye?

First, the Lord specifically condemned retaliation and personal retribution in the Law of Moses.
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18 ESV)

When we read about the principle of an eye for an eye, it is always given in terms of Israel’s civil law, not for personal retribution. You will notice this in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21, which is below.
The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deuteronomy 19:18–21 ESV)

God had given guidance to the judges of Israel when deciding cases that the punishment is supposed to fit the crime. This was to mitigate against the temptation to try to get more than what was just. Punishment should not be less than the crime (“Your eye shall not pity”) but the punishment must not be more than the crime (“life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth”). This was God’s principle for the court system and the judgments they passed. This law did not teach individuals to harm the other person as equally as they have harmed you (cf. Leviticus 19:18; Proverbs 25:21; Proverbs 24:29).

Understanding God’s Law (5:39-42)

Jesus states the principle for living for God’s people and then gives four illustrations to show what God expects. The principle is stated in verse 39: “Do not resist the one who is evil.” The point is not that we do not oppose evil or that we do not resist the devil, which God commands (James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:9). We are told to resist evil within the church so that it does not leaven the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5:13). Jesus is speaking about personal vengeance because this is how the teachers of the Law were applying the “eye for an eye” principle. Jesus is speaking about someone doing harm to us. How are we supposed to deal with the person who does evil to us? The principle is that we will not resist or stand against the evildoer who harms us. Now what does Jesus mean by this? What does this look like? Jesus gives four illustrations to help us understand what this looks like in our lives.

Turn the other cheek (5:39).The first illustration is a picture of a physical offense or insult. The slapping of a person on a cheek was the showing of extreme contempt for a person. We still use this idea as an idiom today: “It was a slap in the face.” So what are you supposed to do when someone insults you, shows extreme contempt for you, or is deeply offensive to you? Jesus says to turn the other cheek. We do not respond in kind. We do not have the right to return fire with equal proportion because someone harmed us. Someone hurts us then we want to hurt them and we think we are justified in doing so. But Jesus reveals that we do not retaliate when harmed or insulted.

Give your cloak (5:40).Next, Jesus says that if someone would sue you to take your tunic, give your cloak as well. There are a few things we need to consider to have the proper understanding of what Jesus is teaching. First, we must notice that you are being sued. This is not a picture of a robbery but a picture that we owe something to the person and they have gone to court for what is owed. Second, we must understand what it means to give one’s cloak. Under the Law of Moses the cloak was one of the Israelites’ rights.

If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. (Exodus 22:25–27 ESV)

Notice that even if a cloak was given in a pledge, it was to be returned to him that night for his covering to stay warm. The cloak was a right for every Israelite. So think about that Jesus says you give the one who sues you your cloak. The point is that we are to be willing to pay our debts and even more than owe. Someone sues you for your tunic, you give your cloak also. You give what is owed and be willing to give even more. There is a practical example of this in the New Testament with Zacchaeus. He learned this principle in Luke 19:8 when he says that if he had defrauded anyone, he would repay it four times over. This is exactly what Jesus is teaching. We give above and beyond what is owed to those whom we owe. The person had the right to keep his cloak, but Jesus says to give that also.

Go two miles (5:41).Jesus illustrates this idea further with something from Roman times. The Romans could commandeer civilians to carry the luggage of military personnel for a prescribed distance, one Roman mile. Rather than only going one mile, Jesus teaches going two miles. Notice the picture again is not doing the bare minimum. If you are compelled to do something, be willing to go even further. Cheerfully accept the imposition. Do not insist upon your rights but be willing to do more.

Give (5:42).The final illustration is the willingness to give your property to another. The implication is that this is something the person genuinely needs. We are not fulfilling wants and wish lists. But we do not refuse those who have a legitimate need for something. We will not see our property as ours but as gifts of God that we give to those who have need.

The Message

So what is Jesus teaching are the characteristics of those who belong in his kingdom? First, we do not retaliate. An eye for an eye does not mean we get to respond with equal treatment to those who wrong us or do evil against us. There is no justification in saying, “He started it.” Second, we are not here to make much of our rights. You will notice in each of these illustrations we are seeing our rights being voluntarily revoked. We do not say, “I have a right.” We give up our rights for others. In Christ Jesus we do not say that we have a right. Personal sacrifice replaces personal retaliation, just as Jesus showed us in his own life.

This is the big idea: we do not make our rights the basis for our relationships with others. Be prepared to take a lowly position as a humble servant. Be prepared to sacrifice your rights for a life of following Jesus. Be prepared to pay the price of imitating Jesus.

Third, Jesus followers go above and beyond. They do not look for doing the minimum for others. They go the extra mile. They give more than required. They do not look for the least they can do. God’s people ask what else they can do.

Finally, these instructions are not what we do for other Christians or for those who treat us well. Go back to Matthew 5:39. The principle is to not resist the one who is evil. We are talking about doing good in the face of evil. Jesus is teaching the principle here that Paul would later teach to the Roman Christians.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14–21 ESV)

Justified retaliation is not the picture of a Christian. The picture of a Christian is selfless sacrifice. Give your cheek, give your tunic, give your body, and give your possessions. This is what life in the kingdom looks like.