An Aye for an Eye for an Eye?
The Bible indeed teaches “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. In this, Jesus is quoting the Scripture. Seeing that we have established that we have already established in our study on the Sermon on the Mount that what Jesus is demonstrating here is the deficiency of the Pharisees doctrine and practice of the teaching of Scripture, we must also look here for what was deficient, At the same time, we must also remember Jesus’ words earlier in the sermon that every jot and tittle of the Law and the Prophets must be fulfilled. So Jesus cannot be teaching anything here which contradicts Scripture. We have also seen that Jesus puts His own words on par with that of Scripture itself. So we must see that there is a harmony between the words of the Law and Prophets and His own.
To understand what Jesus is saying here, we need to go back to the world of the Old Testament in the days of Moses. One of the places which “an eye for an eye” is mentioned is in Exodus 21:24, the chapter after the giving of the Ten Commandments. If one follows the dating the Scripture assigns to the Exodus, then the time of this saying is roughly the time of the great king and lawgiver Hammurabi of Babylon. Hammurabi expressed a similar sentiment to that recorded by Moses at the behest of God. The context was that of limiting personal revenge for offenses of someone else against him/her. One of the limits was to establish an independent court to determine if the injury done was intentional or not. The other was to limit the punishment to fit the crime. One could not take two eyes in revenge for an eye or two teeth for a tooth. This was meant to prevent blood feuds and escalation between family groups like our proverbial Hatfields and McCoys. So the establishment of this law of retribution, though it seems harsh to us today, was really a means of justice. The punishment could not exceed the crime. Even today, this is widely held. Because the Bible says it, then it is still the expression of God’s will on the matter.
So does Jesus cancel the Law when He says not to avenge one’s self? Doesn’t the true disciple of Jesus to whom the Sermon on the Mount is addressed have a right to seek redress when one is wronged? Of course, Scripture says that the believer has the wright to seek redress from being wronged. So what gives here when Jesus says not to resist the “evil one”? Jesus by using the formula “but I say unto you” is giving full authority to what He is about to say, so we had best listen. He says not to resist the evil one, then with the strong Greek word for “but” He introduces to His true disciples what we should do instead when we are insulted. There is some discussion of whether the slap on the cheek is a real act of wounding or just a means of insult. Even if it is only an insult, we can remember that this kind of behavior was used as a challenge to a duel in which real blood was shed. A war was fought between the English and the Spanish over the insult of cutting off the ear of a British Captain named Jenkins. The wound was a real one, but the insult was deeper than the wound itself. A war ensued where real blood was shed. In other words, just the insult itself if it brings on retaliation and increasing bloodshed is actually contrary to the intent of “an eye for an eye” which was to limit taking personal revenge.
Jesus offers a strange answer to the law limiting retribution which was intended to limit violence to the wound inflicted. There is a sense of escalation here. Instead of offering a slap of insult in response which was equivalent to accepting an escalation of violence, the escalation was instead to offer the other cheek as well. In other words it was inviting the perpetrator to offer the slap he deserved to the victim that he had just insulted. This idea of retaliation is further developed by Jesus saying that if one is sued for his cloak, overpay the judgment by giving the accuser the inner garment as well. Of course, this would leave one virtually naked if not totally naked. Being naked or nearly so was an act of utter shame. Today, it seems to be glorified. People are only too willing to expose themselves. But this was unthinkable in Jesus day. Even suing for one’s cloak, which was what kept one warm at night was seen as an injustice as a pledged cloak had to be returned at night according to the Law.
One of the greatest insults that a Jew or subject peoples of the Romans had to endure was that of having to carry the heavy armor of the Roman soldier for a Roman mile. It reminded them that they were captives and slaves in their own land. The knock and summons at the door to carry the armor might come at any time of day or night. So when Jesus says to offer to carry the armor voluntarily a second mile was to put a double insult on the victim. Of course it would have been suicide to have resisted the Roman soldier. One had to bear the insult for a mile. But to bear the insult an extra mile seems ridiculous.
It is a challenge to our sense of justice when we see others who are being mistreated. But when the “them” becomes “us” we are provoked to anger. And this is exactly the transition Jesus makes in this sermon where He changes to the “blessed are YOU when YOU are persecuted” To offer the other cheek and go the extra mile is a command to us. How could we possibly do this? It would seem to leave us naked and without defense. Like the Pharisees and Scribes who looked at the exacting demands of the Law and said to themselves that God must certainly be exaggerating, we want to think that Jesus is exaggerating and using what is called hyperbole here. But to do so is to resort to the methods of the Scribes and Pharisees of reinterpreting the Scripture to say less than it says. We would then be challenged by what Jesus Himself says in this sermon “Unless your righteousness exceed that of the Scribes, you shall by no means enter the Kingdom”.
Again, it would seem that the words of Jesus bring us to either self-righteousness or abject despair. We want to cry with the disciples “Who then can be saved?” If God is this exacting of righteousness on our part, then we are hopeless. We like the Scribes and Pharisees would find ourselves locked out of the Kingdom. Who could possibly do even one of Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, no less all of them?
The only hope for us is in the very on who spoke these words. We thing of Jesus who was so wrongfully slapped and insulted at His trial before the Sanhedrin, If anyone had right cause for revenge, it was Jesus. Not only was Jesus insulted as a man. He was insulted as the very God who created all things. They were slapping God in the face. Yet this very Jesus who could have called legions of angels to avenge Him did not avenge Himself. He spoke the word in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Roman soldiers fell on their backsides. He could as easily have spoken the word and killed them outright. But instead of rendering evil for evil, he allowed Himself to be victimized twice, and more than twice. He received multiple slaps before submitting willfully to scourging and crucifixion. They took all of His garments and cast lots for them. He was left doubly wounded and naked to the shame of the cross. He carried something far heavier than the armor of a Roman soldier. He carried the sin of the world. He had no sin of His own, but consider how heavy just your sin pressed upon Him on the cross, no less the sin of billions of people. Surely, what Jesus say here on the Sermon on the Mount was fulfilled in the death of Jesus!
So when we are insulted wrongly and submit to buffeting, we are pointing the way to Jesus and His suffering. The true discipleship knows that this discipleship is costly. But bear witness to the truth we must. May God give us the grace to do so, for it is truly not in us.
We might also want to consider this. Just because we have a God-given an irrevocable right to revenge, this does not mean that we have to exercise this right. We are not breaking Scripture if we do not take rightful revenge. Jesus in His death for our sin clearly demonstrates this. If you will believe that He died on the cross on your behalf and rose again as proof that His sacrifice in your behalf was accepted, then you need not fear paying the judgment for you insult and sin against God. You need not fear His wrath because the debt has already been paid.
If you have not received Jesus as Lord and Savior, then realize that you will have to give account to this same Jesus you have insulted with your rebellion and sin and will have to face the proper retribution for your sin, stripe for stripe, would for wound. You will pay every farthing in Hell. It is an insult which will never be satisfied. The gulf is wide and the decision is an eternal one. Either trust in Jesus or yourself and your supposed goodness.