“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 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; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”
In this text we reach the high point of the Sermon on the Mount. These are the words for which Jesus is either the most admired or the most resented. For here is where Jesus teaches total love for “one who is evil,” for one’s “enemies.” (vss. 39, 44).
“Divine Logic!” Shout such heroes as Tolstoy, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., “Utterly ridiculous!” “Naive!” Shout a chorus of others.
Let’s get into Jesus’ words. And let’s allow them to get into us.
The Oldest Law
You will notice the text begins with , “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” This is humankind’s oldest law, the “Lex Talionis.” In 2250 B.C. it was published in the code of Hammurabi.
I call it the “tit for tat rule.” If I get in a fight with you and knock out your tooth, the law says one of my teeth must be knocked out. If I get drunk and drive my car into yours and your wife loses an eye, then I shall forfeit one of my eyes. You will find this law laid down in Exodus 21:23-25 and again in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Now before you call this law cruel, bloody, and revolting, let me hasten to point out it was made to limit violence, to stop blood feuds between tribes.
Recall Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Two prominent families, a rivalry that spills blood in a sword duel, and suddenly there is the prospect of escalating war! This law, the Lex Talonis, however, limits retaliation to a proportional response. It takes retribution from the streets to the law courts. If you lost an arm, you do not kill in retaliation. The penalty is to do what was done to you.
Over the course of time the Lex Talionis moved to a financial settlement. “Blood money” we call it. If you lost an eye due to my negligence, rather than gouge my eye out, we’d strive to arrive at a financial settlement. And there were five points used to determine the suit. Injury, pain, healing, loss of time, and indignity.
It all sounds strangely modern! When we’re involved in an automobile wreck and its our fault, we have insurance agents, courts, attorneys and arbitrators who go to work sorting things out and bringing about an equitable solution. Why, our nation is awash in such litigation!
A New Way
In the text, Jesus seems to abolish all this. “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say unto you, do not resist one who is evil.” We are to give up our right to revenge, to absorb the blow, refuse to retaliate, to suffer the injury.
To drive home His point, Jesus gives four examples, four brief cameos.
The first has to do with insults. “If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to Him the other also.” Think about it. To be hit on the right cheek is not to be punched. It is to be backhanded. This is a blow of insult. And Christ is pointing out that by the law of Talionis, to be insulted releases one to insult in return. But Jesus is now telling us, “You guys in the God kingdom are really gonna be different! For instead of lowering yourself to the level of insult, you simply absorb it, and literally turn the other cheek.”
The second cameo has to do with law suits. Jesus said, “If any one would sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well.” The coat was an inner garment, a sort of “long shirt.” And even the poorest had two. But a cloak was an outer garment, a sort of blanket or tunic. The average person owned just one. It served as his rain coat, winter wrap, and blanket at night. Exodus 22:26-27 warns businessmen that if you take a fellow’s tunic in pledge, be sure to return it by nightfall lest they be cold. What Christ is saying is this: If someone is suing you for the shirt off your back, give them your coat also. The law of love demands you shiver through a sleepless night than keep a legal fight going.
The third cameo Jesus shared has to do with impositions. “If any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” In Christ’s day Israel was a conquered nation. The Roman army occupied the land. And to keep the Jews from forgetting their subservient status, the Romans decreed a forced impressment. Any Roman soldier could stop you on the street, interrupt your schedule, and force you to carry his pack for a mile. By treating you as a pack mule, it insured two things. You knew Rome was the boss. And the soldier arrived at his post rested.
One can imagine how unpopular such forced impressment was. Here you are clean, shaved, dressed up, and walking four blocks to a dinner party at your girl’s, when a burly Roman soldier shouts, “You! Carry my load.” There’s hatred in his eyes, his hand is on his sword, so you take up his dirty pack and walk sweating the full mile, then stagger back to your dinner party late, dirty, and tired. Such was humiliating and provoking.
But Jesus says rather shockingly, “Go the second mile.” Do not do the least expected. Don’t ask, “How little can I get away with?” Do more than expected. Do it without resentment. Do it cheerfully.
Simon of Cyrene was forcibly impressed by a Roman soldier. He found himself carrying the cross of Jesus to Golgotha (Matthew 27:32).
Now for the fourth cameo. Jesus said, “Give to him who begs from you and do not refuse one who would borrow from you.” Deuteronomy 15:7-11 gives careful instructions about not hardening your heart, but opening your hand to the poor in your midst. The idea is that all persons are made in God’s image and therefore have value. Poverty is defacing. It is a responsibility of the wealthy to minister with their wealth, not to simply consume it all upon themselves. Generosity and kindness must be the mark of the Christian.
“You guys are really gonna be different!” Jesus is saying.
The old way is tit for tat, an eye for an eye. But now there is a new and living way! And Jesus sums it up, “Do not resist one who is evil” (vs. 39). The word “resist not” in Greek is “anthistemi.” It means to not oppose, not to withstand, not to set oneself against.
Scripture teaches us to “resist not God” (Ro. 9:19, 2 Tim. 3:8, Acts 6:10). But it teaches us to “resist the devil.” (Eph. 6:13, 1 Peter 5:9, James 4:7). So the idea is quite clear in Scripture. We are to give God His way, to refuse to give Satan his way. And when it comes to people, “Resist not one who is evil who insults, sues, forcibly impresses you, or begs.” In other words, don’t fight with people.
Fight with the devil, sure! But not with people.
Dietrick Bonhoeffer called such a lifestyle, “Visible participation in the cross.” Spurgeon, speaking of this verse, remarked, “We are to be anvils when bad men are hammers.”
Let’s say a business deal goes bad. You have been used and abused! When you inquire politely that the contract be honored, you are insulted and sued, your name is slandered about the business community. What to do?
There are four possible responses.
- He hurt me. I’ll hurt him more. You go after his jugular. Revenge is your aim. Nuke him!
- He hurt me. I’ll pay him back in kind. Tit for tat. A taste of his own medicine. Exact retribution.
- He hurt me. I’ll ignore him. Treat him as a non-person. Write him off. Freeze him out.
- He hurt me. I’ll love him anyway and find a way to serve him.
This fourth way is what Jesus is lauding. It is the story of the Bible. For God created man good and allowed us to frolic in the Garden. When we sinned and hurt God, He didn’t ignore us or hit back. He loves us, He began to act in our best interests.
This is precisely what Jesus did in His passion.
The soldier struck Jesus on the cheek. He offered them the other.
He was mocked, crowned with cruel thorns, stripped naked of His shirt and cloak. He resisted not. He let it all go.
He was impressed forcibly by Roman soldiers to carry a cross. He lifted it all the way to Golgotha.
And when we sinful beggars came to Him destitute, hands out for any mercy from God, He gave, He gives, freely!
When we hurt Jesus, He responded in love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in Him might not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
From the cross God saw us at our worst, our most hating, rebel-hearted, demonic selves. Ah! But on the cross we see Christ at His best, His most loving, gracious and forgiving self.
And in the text Jesus is asking us to behave like Him.
We are forever standing on our rights, clutching privilege to ourselves, militant, punishing, ready to sue to preserve our status. But Jesus says if we follow Him we must give it all up and become a servant to others.
I like how Peter put it, “Jesus set us an example that we should follow in His steps.” (1 Peter 2:21-23).
In the book, Seven Habits of Effective People, Stephen Covey touts not reacting to situations, but being pro-active. When a sinner hurts you, the reactive lower themselves to that level. You allow them to set your agenda. And in retaliation you provide just one more worldly example of human sin.
The pro-active, however, let God set their agenda. They act in positive love– turning cheeks, non-resisting, refusing to sue, giving generously, going that extra mile. And in so doing they witness Jesus. For the world has seldom seen the likes of such!
But you say, “That’s so weak! It’s an invitation to be a doormat!” Quite the contrary! For the Bible says of Jesus, “Have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus who though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow. . .” (Philippians 2:5-11).
Clearly, if we try to exalt ourselves all we can do is fight. But when we become servants one to another, God Himself is careful to exalt us.
Today, is your cheek burning from some slap of insult? Has someone torn the shirt off your back in court? Is some burly warrior using you as a pack mule? Is the world come begging at your door?
Will you act or react? Will you live like Jesus or live like the world?
Arthur Ashe, the black tennis star, was victimized by racial prejudice. He contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion during surgery, and he died without malice, a Christian. Before he perished, he said in a speech, “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
So let it be with all who name the name of Jesus!
Include me in on all this, Lord! Amen.