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 an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
In order for us to properly understand Jesus’ point in this passage, we must fully understand the different parts. The “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” comes from old Jewish law. Usually, when we read this rule we see it as a goal. In our vengeful thoughts, we look to this as justification for vengeance upon others who have done us wrong. We, as well as Jesus’ audience, have completely distorted the point behind this law. In Exodus 21, God explains some punishments that correspond with offenses. He was laying a groundwork of fairness, in that it would not be right for someone to be killed in recompense if all they did was accidentally break someone’s arm, for instance. All countries have a similar rule of fairness and justice set as a way to match a fair punishment with each crime against society. So then, this law is not a law of vengeance, but one of recompense and restoration. How easily we have twisted God’s original intent to match our evil desires.
In the beatitudes, Jesus told us that the peacemakers are blessed because they will be called sons of God. Let us ask ourselves, is plucking out a tooth or eye very peace-like? The Apostle Paul sums it up well in Romans 12:
17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. 20 “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The heaping of burning coals on ones’ head is a refining process. This is why Paul says we should overcome evil with good, even though he just referenced a Proverb (25:22) that on the surface seems to tell us to burn someone’s scalp. God wants us to use His refining fire of love on others so they too may be sanctified just as we are being sanctified. Verses 40-41 reference Roman laws of those days. A Roman soldier or ruler could make the Jews give over a piece of clothing to one in need or even make them carry something for a mile. Jesus said, “instead of resisting them, love them by doing more than they ask.” I’m sure this made many folks uncomfortable as the Roman government at the time was oppressing the Jews. But imagine the implications of doing this; how would you react if you forced someone to do something and they did it with joy and went above and beyond what you required? Would this not be strange? So is the Kingdom of God.
We do not have such laws but we do find ourselves in situations where we feel as though we have to do something: our parents ask us to clean our room, our boss asks us to work extra hours, our spouse asks us to help with a chore. How often do you do these things begrudgingly? Or how many of us when we recognize someone has wronged us immediately seek our “justice” and look to return the favor? Unfortunately we have evolved into a society of vengeance and complaint. If we follow Jesus’ instruction here, however, we will not only refine those around us, but also will be refined in our own spiritual life. This is why the peacemakers are blessed and are called sons of God. Matthew Henry’s bible commentary concludes this part of Jesus’ sermon in a way that helps us to remember the point:
The sum of all is, that Christians must not be litigious; small injuries must be submitted to, and no notice taken of them; and if the injury be such as requires us to seek reparation, it must be for a good end, and without thought of revenge: though we must not invite injuries, yet we must meet them cheerfully in the way of duty, and make the best of them. If any say, Flesh and blood cannot pass by such an affront, let them remember, that flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God.