"38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth
for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But
if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and
if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;
41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give
to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you."
Jesus is continuing to flesh out for His listeners what true righteousness
is. Remember that Jesus began this section by saying that He is the One who
fulfills all righteousness. In reading through these sections, then, we are
first learning more of the character of Jesus, and therefore of the triune
God. The meaning, shape and character of righteousness does not come primarily
from what God says, but out of who God is.
In this section we see that righteousness, God’s righteousness, involves
a freedom to love and serve others, that is in no way bound by the other’s
character, motives, or relationship with the One who is loving. This righteousness
that Jesus fulfills and provides for us is rooted in overflowing grace and
love, freeing the giver to give without regard to whether she or he will receive
equally back from the one being given to.
Jesus begins this section, as He has the preceding ones, reminding His readers
of what they already know. "You have heard that it was said, ‘An
eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ This principle was the basis
of much of Near Eastern justice, and would be immediately recognized by Jesus’ hearers.
It was put into place to restrain unlimited blood vengeance. It limited what
damages one could expect to what was considered proportional, equal and fair.
But what this dictum often led to was a tit-for-tat kind of thinking that
permeated all relationships. This attitude is certainly still pervasive today.
We often work to keep things as even and equal as possible. Children begin
very early to argue when they believe something is "not fair." If
someone hurts us in some way, we are tempted to hurt them back. Suing has gotten
out of hand in our culture. We want what we believe is our share. We can also
be concerned about keeping things even so that we are not beholden to others.
If we are given a Christmas gift of certain value, for instance, we will think
through what action or gift would "equal" this present and so keep
things even. Keeping and getting even directs so much of what we do.
What a restricting way to live! We are then tempted to decide how to act toward
others according to how they act towards us. When we are wronged, our thoughts
are focused on how to "get even." We want them to pay for what they
have done. This can become our one obsession. We see people today, consumed
with a desire for revenge that is so deep, that this passion comes to define
their whole purpose in life. Evil begets evil, and it becomes a perpetual course.
"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" can help limit the evil
of a retaliation, but there is no life in it. It can only keep things "even." It
cannot bring joy, grace, or life into the relationship. To live by this mindset
is to be bound within a cycle of reaction and action. It does not lead to freedom.
Jesus is telling His readers that "an eye for an eye and a tooth for
a tooth" is not the righteousness that exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees.
It does not reflect the true righteousness that has its source in God’s
own heart and character. So now Jesus tells His readers that true righteousness
goes way beyond a tit-for-tat mindset. The RSV version that I use translates
this next line "But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil." If
Jesus sees this as the contrast to the previous line, then this must mean that
we are not to pay evil back with evil, even if it is an "equal and fair" amount.
I do not believe Jesus is saying that we are not to resist evil, but that we
are not to resist it with evil means. This makes the most sense in the context.
I found further insight on the Greek in a book entitled Kingdom Ethics (IVP,
2003). The Greek for "evil" can mean either "by evil means" or "the
evil person", and which to choose must be decided from the context. As
I stated, this follows Jesus quoting "an eye for an eye and a tooth for
a tooth" which has to do with a particular means for dealing with evil
or pain. Secondly, the authors go on to note that the Greek word translated "resist" is "used
in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures ... and in the Greek sources
of the time, Josephus and Philo, ‘for armed resistance in military encounters’ in
the majority of cases." Their conclusion is that a more accurate translation
to this verse would be "‘do not retaliate or resist violently or
revengefully, by evil means.’"(p. 138).
Jesus now goes on to give three examples of what a true righteousness looks
like in situations where you might be tempted to give back "tit-for-tat." It
is important to see that in each of these situations, the righteous person
acts out of freedom toward the other rather than just reacting to what occurs.
It seems to me that in all of these cases, this freedom is rooted in the understanding
that true righteousness begins in being poor in spirit. The truly righteous
one knows that her/his identity and life do not come from themselves but are
found in God, so no one can take it from them. This allows them to act independently
of the others’ actions towards them in any given situation.
In the first example someone strikes you on the right cheek. According to
The Bible Background Commentary (IVP) a "blow on the right cheek was the
most grievous insult possible in the ancient world ..." and "both
Jewish and Roman law permitted prosecution for this offense" (p. 60).
To act by the standards of justice and fairness, one would seek retribution
for this act. But Jesus suggests that true righteousness means turning and
offering the other cheek as well. In other words, what the righteous man is
saying by this action is "You think you have insulted me by this action,
but in order to show you that you have no power to insult me because I know
to whom I belong, I will offer to let you slap my other cheek as well."
In the second example someone is out to sue you and take your coat. As in
the previous example, someone is trying to "lord it over" you, to
control and abuse you. They believe they are in the seat of power over you.
But Jesus suggests you dispel this notion here by giving them your cloak as
well. They are out to take it by force from you, but you turn around and demonstrate
that if they intend to wrongfully take it from you, you are going to choose
to give to them freely if they need it so badly.
The third example comes from the law at that time. A Roman soldier could legally
make you carry something (usually all his military baggage) for him for one
mile. If the soldier makes this demand of you, you may well feel as if you
are being forced to do this, that you have no choice. The soldier can lord
it over you because of his position in the occupying army. You would be tempted
to find some way to retaliate, to get back at this soldier for this humiliation
of being forced to carry his things for him. But Jesus’ tells His hearers
that true righteousness would lead you to walk a second mile for the man as
well. It is as if you are saying, "You think that you are forcing me to
do this, as if I have no choice. To show you that I am free from your tyranny
and that I freely choose to do this, because I serve an even higher Authority,
I will go with you even farther than you expect me to."
Lastly, Jesus encourages His listeners to be generous givers. He tells them
not to refuse either the person who begs from them or the person who wants
to borrow from them. They are not to react in these situations by trying to
protect themselves and make sure that everything remains even and fair. Their
response is not to come from the immediate situation, but out of a freedom
that indicates that they know that money is not the source of their lives and
Jesus is the One who fulfills this righteousness. He does not move towards
us in reaction to how we deal with Him. He comes to us with a lavish love and
grace which is in no way merited by our situation. He is not reacting to our
loveliness, goodness, and impressive good deeds. In Ephesians 2:4-5, Paul says
that God poured out His great love for us while we were still dead in our sins.
Jesus is not motivated by trying to carve out His fair share, or by seeing
that we get what we deserve. He is not dependent on our actions to know how
to feel and act towards us. Jesus acts out of a tremendous freedom, a freedom
that comes from knowing that His life and identity come from His wonderful
Father and so He has nothing He needs to protect or guard from us.
This is the amazing righteousness that is at the heart of the triune God,
and that Jesus in fulfilling the law has come to share with us. We are truly
poor in spirit--silly creatures so often grasping to make sure that we get
our share, that we keep things even, as if our lives were at their deepest
level bound up with our own efforts. The tit-for-tat mindset assumes that life,
and our identities and worth, are limited commodities that we all need to compete
for. The good news that Jesus reveals here is that this is simply not the case.
There is a true righteousness that operates out of the freedom that comes from
knowing the truth, the reality that you are indeed the beloved daughter or
son of God. He gives us our lives, our identities and they are secure in Him.
So we return good even for evil.
It is wonderful to know that this righteousness, this free love and grace
that Jesus pours out on us, is the righteousness He is transforming us to fully
share in. And what a great way to live that so far exceeds the endless cycle
of keeping things even.
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