Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for applying instructions for the judges of Israel to their personal behavior. They claim they can be proportionally vindictive in the name of seeking retribution and still consider themselves blameless. Jesus says the guiding principle is not “an eye for an eye” but rather “turn the other cheek.”
Matthew 5:17-20 is the introduction to the second major section of this sermon. Jesus wants his disciples to avoid the kind of law keeping that the Pharisees practice: holding to the letter of the law while avoiding its genuine demands. He gives examples to explain how our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” – Matthew 5:38-42
Three Old Testament passages use this phrase an “eye for an eye”. The first is Exodus 21:22-25.
22“When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. – Exodus 21:22-25
- This law applies to a situation where a pregnant woman is harmed such that she gives birth prematurely. If she and her baby are otherwise okay, the husband can impose a fine. If there is further injury, the penalty is life for life, eye for eye, bruise for bruise, and so forth.
- This passage provides instruction to the judges of Israel on how to pronounce justice in their courts.
- The judges are to use strict but proportional justice.
The second passage is Leviticus 24:18-22.
17“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. 18Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. 19If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. 21Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. 22You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God.” – Leviticus 24:18-22
- Leviticus 24:18-22 also contains instructions to the judges of Israel on how they should pronounce judgment.
- If you kill someone’s animal, you have to replace the animal with another. Anything that you do to harm a human being can be done to you, eye for eye and tooth for tooth.
- If you harm a stranger or a non-Jew, the punishment is the same.
The third passage is Deuteronomy 19:15-21.
15“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. 16If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” – Deuteronomy 19:15-21
- Deuteronomy 19:15-21 contains instructions for the judges concerning witnesses in their courts.
- Whatever harm the false witness tried to inflict on his neighbor by lying shall be done to the false witness.
The debate continues today about the proper nature and purpose of the criminal justice system. Today we punish criminals for several reasons:
- to discourage them from committing the crime again in the future.
- to discourage others from committing the same crime.
- to establish justice. It is appropriate for lawbreakers to pay in some way for their crime.
- Deuteronomy 19:19-20 gives two reasons for prescribing punishments: as a disincentive to further crime and to “purge evil from your midst.”
- The punishments were intended both to promote good civil behavior and to communicate the message that God is serious about the difference between good and evil.
- To remain pure as a theocracy under God, the nation must purge the evil from their midst.
What have we learned from our brief look at Old Testament?
- All 3 passages concern judicial pronouncements. When one person harms another, God gave the judges of Israel these guidelines to follow in setting punishment.
- The punishment is strict but proportional.
- These laws promoted civil order and religious purity.
- This phrase “an eye for an eye” is not intended to be a guide for personal behavior.
- These laws are guidelines to the judges of Israel concerning their sentencing as they enforce the laws of society. These laws are not permission for individuals to take matters into their own hands.
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. – Matthew 5:38-42
- The Pharisees were misusing these laws as a justification for their own personal behavior.
- Many scholars say that by the time of Jesus, Israel had stopped applying these laws about an eye for an eye in their criminal justice system and imposed fines instead.
- A society cannot be good if it fails to enforce justice, but sometimes an individual cannot be good if she/he insists on enforcing justice.
- Jesus starts by saying “do not resist an evil person.” I take this phrase as an overall comment on the examples that follow. His examples are situations where someone unjustly harms someone else.
- This word translated resist is sometimes used in legal contexts. It can mean to stand against someone in court.
- Jesus is saying: When someone treats you unjustly, the natural response is to make them stop and to make them pay. You might do this through personal retaliation or appealing to the courts. But I’m saying don’t do it.
But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. – Matthew 5:39
- For example, whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
- Since most people are right-handed, this image here is a backhanded slap. The rabbis said that a back-handed slap was doubly insulting and imposed a double fine.
- Using the left hand to hit the right check is also insulting because the left hand was considered unclean.
- By specifying the right check, scholars suggest that Jesus is picturing a particularly insulting kind of action.
- How should you respond? You should make a dramatic gesture of non-retaliation. You turn and offer him your other cheek.
And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. – Matthew 5:40
- Many scholars point out that the coat is the outermost garment a person would wear.
- Exodus 22:25-27 allows someone else to take your shirt as just payment for your crime. But the law would not allow someone to take your outer garment, because that outer garment is necessary to survive.
- Jesus suggests you give him more than he is entitled to if he took you to court.
And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. – Matthew 5:41
- Roman soldiers could conscript travelers and force the traveler to carry their equipment for a certain distance.
- Example: Matthew 27:32
- Jesus says rather than resist him, go even farther than he asks you to go.
Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. – Matthew 5:42
- Compare with Luke 6:30.
- In this situation someone is asking for money and I suspect they are not being totally honest. I suspect this deal is going to cost me. Jesus says give anyway.
What’s the point?
- The language an eye for an eye applies to civil justice in the courts. Innocent people should be protected. Criminal harms should be punished proportionate to the crime.
- For individuals, the over-arching principle we must deal with is: “Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:17-18).”
- We are not foremost to call for retribution down to the last penny, as the Pharisees do.
- The law calls us to seek our neighbors’ good even when they have wronged us.
- Compare with Matthew 5:9. Jesus gives striking examples of being a peacemaker and refusing to escalate the conflict.
The Pharisees justify their behavior by appealing to the law. In this case, they appeal to the law that says an eye for an eye. The law rightly calls for strict but proportional punishment of law breakers.
The Pharisees conclude from this law that retribution is legal. They can be proportionally vindictive and still consider themselves blameless.
But the Pharisees have forgotten the overriding principle of the law. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are not to seek vengeance and hold grudges. Even when our neighbors do us wrong, we are still to seek what is good for them.
Jesus gives us striking examples of ways we can seek the good of those who wrong us. In these examples we stop the cycle of aggression. We boldly demonstrate our willingness to seek peace and reconciliation with those who wrong us when that is the appropriate and good thing for them.
That is the kind of righteousness the law promotes and it surpasses what the Pharisees have required.