Matthew 5:38–39a (ESV) 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,”
In Matthew chapter five, starting in verse twenty-one, Jesus begins to expose the false teachings of the religious leaders of his day. In a series of short critiques that begin with “You have heard that it was said” and conclude with “But I say to you”, Jesus reveals the self-serving ways that the scribes and Pharisees approached God and in turn corrupted his laws’ original intentions.
Rather than come before God’s laws with humble, believing hearts of reverence and love for God, a majority of religious leaders approached his law with an attitude of arrogance and self-righteousness. Because of this, God’s laws were not seen as principles to embrace and honor but rather they were viewed as restrictions and rules to manipulate and fit into one’s personal agenda. Jesus exposes this self-righteousness interpretation of God’s laws and then simply reaffirms their original meaning.
In verses 38 to 42, Jesus specifically addresses the misinterpretation of God’s law “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Current religious teaching of the day had twisted his principle to justify personal retaliation and revenge rather that discourage it (which was the law’s original intent).
The first mention of the principle “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is found in Exodus 21:23-24, it’s repeated in Leviticus 24:19-20 and then again in Deuteronomy 19:21. If you read each passage in context, you will discover that the law was meant to assure that justice was meted out equitably in public and not privately behind closed doors (i.e. personal revenge and retaliation). Victims of offenses and crimes were to take their cases before judges and the judges were to look into the matter “diligently” (Deut. 19:18) in an attempt to objectively uncover the truth. When the truth was determined, then justice was to be “equitably” carried out according to the principle “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”.
This law of God “An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for hand, etc.” also established the equality of all people by declaring that the eye of a man was just as valuable as an eye of a woman and that the tooth of a poor man was of equal value as a tooth of a rich man. This law radically ended partiality for the world’s privileged over the world’s under-privileged and declared the dignity and value of all people regardless of one’s race, gender, ability or social class.
But the religious leaders of Jesus’ day warped the beautiful justice of this particular law of God and twisted it into a perverted justification for one’s own personal revenge and retaliation. What’s truly ridiculous is that the religious leaders not only twisted God’s law but they also ignored other laws and teachings of Scripture that clearly spoke against holding a grudge or taking personal revenge. Check out Leviticus 19:18, Proverbs 20:22 and Proverbs 24:29.
So what does Jesus say we ought to do when we are offended or sinned against? In verses 39 to 42 he says, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Wow, how are you supposed to do that? Are we to take this literally? What’s Jesus teaching here?
First of all, we need to ask ourselves, “Did Jesus literally live like this?” The answer is no. He resisted evil when they attempted to arrest him because his time had not come. When he was slapped in the face before the high priest, he questioned the justice of why he was slapped. And he definitely did not give to people whatever they asked of him. So, what is Jesus teaching with these illustrations?
What we need to remember is that the religious leaders had corrupted this principle, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and used this law to defend and justify their evil acts of retaliation against those who offended or wronged them. So Jesus makes it very clear that this twisted teaching of God’s law is totally wrong by giving illustrations of responses to offenses that are the exact opposite of taking personal vengeance.
To respond the way Jesus is commanding would require a heart void of hate and full of God’s gentleness and love. It would require that I treasure the approval of God far above the praises of men. It would require that I die to my agenda and live for God’s agenda that is never thwarted. It would require a death to myself that would be so complete that any offense to my ego would not anger me in the slightest. But any offense to my God would bring me to merciful tears and righteous indignation. It would require that I be whole and complete as my Heavenly Father is whole and complete (Matthew 5:48).
Now that’s a law that I long to see Jesus complete in my life. That’s a law that truly reflects the glory and righteousness of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.