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 an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
(Matthew 5: 38-42 - NAS)
When people get into this section of the Sermon, I think they often pause after the cheek-slapping bit, treating the three verses that follow as separate units for consideration. But when I look at it, I see Jesus structurally using “You have heard it said” as the introduction to a thought and its consequences. So I’m looking at it as a full group. Which means there’s much more going on here than we usually allow ourselves to consider.
“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus is referring back to declarations of appropriate retribution, given in Exodus 21: 24 and Leviticus 24: 19-20. The Leviticus passage goes thus:
If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.
Indeed, the Leviticus passage wraps up in verse 22 with this: There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God.
It is a harsh justice, but one which we recognize as “fair” in our human nature. We want our tormentors to suffer as we have suffered, our oppressors to experience the confinement and restrictions we have suffered. Tit for tat. We feel there is balance in that approach. And look, see, God recognizes it!
But Jesus now puts forward a new, radical suggestion. He presents a new way of responding to these situations. He tells His followers not to resist evil!
I don’t think by “not resisting evil” He means that we are to give into evil, and become evil. Certainly not. What He is saying is not to put up a fight about it, nor to let it drive us away from that person, to flee like a defeated army.
And that is a challenging proposition, even alarming.
I was once in a Bible study where we completely broke down on the cheek slapping verse. The issues of domestic abuse were brought into the discussion. Some wondered if this verse meant that a woman was supposed to stay with an abusive spouse, to the endangerment of her very life. And this was a group of intelligent people. Would God really require someone to endure that kind of evil, if they had the option to leave it? All our instincts tell us that it would be wrong for a woman to stay in such an abusive situation, and yet the Lord tells His followers to not only not strike back when struck on the cheek, but to turn the face and present the other cheek for a second blow.
Are we really to take a beating and do nothing?
I don't think that is quite what Jesus is speaking to here - although he has already told His followers that they will be persecuted, so He’s not unaware that He’s commending a dangerous life to them. Certainly He expects us to endure the tortures of those who imprison us, to return to them the grace and courtesy of the Lord. But I don't think domestic abuse is what Jesus is talking about here.
Jesus is talking about facing evil. By standing our ground when the face is slapped and presenting the other cheek, we have not run away, we have not cowered down like a subservient slave. Instead we have remained standing, facing the attacker as an equal, unafraid and yet ready to do something entirely different. The attacker is probably expecting “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” but Jesus commands something different from us.
What is that “something different”?
Instead of striking back, Jesus goes on and tells us to pay attention to what the oppressor needs. And to overwhelm them with generosity. If someone wants to sue you for your shirt, give him the shirt and then add your coat to it as well. If someone makes you tote something for a mile, do that, and then go even further. Give, give, give. Repeatedly and beyond expectation. And not the blows that the oppressor was expecting in the very human understanding of appropriate and just retribution, but something much more startling. Give what that person needs.
What is it that the person confronting you needs? Can you look beyond the anger and violence and discover what prompted the blows you have received? Assuming that you have done nothing to provoke the violence, what hurt within the other person gave power to that action? Can you stand, looking the person in the face, to discover what it is that that person needs from you? You need my shirt? Here, take it. I give it readily. In fact, if you need covering that badly, take my coat as well. Do not leave me while you still need something.
Again, because so many trip and stall over the issue, does Jesus really expect abused spouses and children to stay with someone who is a constant danger to their very lives? No, I do not think so. We are never condemned for seeking protection for our very lives.
But He also challenges us not to be always fleeing when faced with evil. If no one ever stands to face evil, how can the kingdom of heaven be increased? If we never show that Love is stronger than evil, how would anyone know the power of God?
“You have heard it said ... but I say to you ....”
Do we have ears to hear this? Do we have the courage to try it?