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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
A few thoughts for meditation:
In this next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus confronted another popular misinterpretation of the Old Testament, the misuse of the “lex talionis”, or law of retribution. And example of this is Exodus 21:23-25, “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Here, the point of this law was to restrain personal revenge. You could only punish an offender in a manner that fit the crime. Capital punishment for murder, lesser punishments for equivalent injuries, etc. but all this carried out by the civil authorities after a trial. Personal revenge was strictly forbidden (Lev 19:18). But in Jesus’ day, the “eye for an eye” principle was twisted into a justification for personal revenge, even for personal insults or slights.
Jesus again applied the principles straight to the heart. A disciple does not seek revenge beyond the limits of the law, but seeks to make peace beyond the normal standards of social obligations. Disciples are not to resist “one who is evil”. The list of four examples makes this principle more clear about what kind of “evil” should be tolerated by disciples. These are situations that may be personally insulting or demeaning but not life-threatening (thus the lex-talionis doesn’t apply). If it were life threatening, the obligations of the sixth commandment would call you to defend yourself and stop someone from committing murder. Jesus is addressing personal retaliation not the obligations of governing authorities (i.e. Romans 13).
The first example is the “slap” on the cheek. Most likely, this referred to a slap intended as an insult, not the strike of the fist which marked an assault with harmful or murderous intent. When insulted, the disciple turns the other cheek and is willing to stand tall and bear another insult without revenge. The second example is the confiscation of a “tunic” through a lawsuit. The tunic was in inner shirt. Normally, men would wear a loincloth, tunic, cloak, girdle, head covering, and sandals. In this situation the tunic (inner garment) is taken. The disciple offers to give his cloak (outer garment) as well. The law forbid ever confiscating a cloak. But in this case, the disciple is willing to go beyond his obligations and give his more valuable cloak in order to make peace. The third example is the situation of forced service under the Roman Empire. By law, a Roman soldier could order a civilian to carry his gear for one mile. This was demeaning to the individual, but Jesus called his disciples to be helpful far beyond what is asked, rather than vengeful. If called to carry stuff for one mile, then carry the stuff for two. The final example is a call to generosity, not seeking to profit from your neighbor’s affliction. Give to those who ask. Help the needy as far as you can.
These four pictures together form a shocking picture of a righteousness greater then the Pharisees. Jesus is not here providing a policy for civil legislation. But he is showing the heart of a true disciple, one which is more concerned with the needs of others rather than asserting or defending one’s own dignity or rights. We do not live in an ancient Jewish or Roman society like the people Jesus spoke to here, but the principle still applies to our own day. We can still insulted and demeaned by others. We may be asked to do things which are not pleasant but not sin either. We still have needy people around us. The heart of a disciple is willing to serve above and beyond the call of social expectations out of genuine love for God and neighbor, serving like Jesus served, as he went to the Cross for our sins.