In Matt. 5.38 Jesus begins with, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth’, (from Ex. 21.24). (39) But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also (NKJV).” The Law of Retaliation covers verses 5.38 to 5.42, and requires special attention, for these verses refer to specific kinds of people. Verse 40 refers to those who may wish to ensnare you in court. Verse 41 deals with Roman authority, ‘going the extra mile’, and v. 42 directs us to the good man who is in need.
In the Law of Retaliation, Jesus addresses the proper manner to walk in the new Way: to stand with integrity, be wary of worldly entanglements, and if possible resist vindictiveness. These instructions allow the individual to perform within two important attributes of character. First, to step back from worldliness, and in doing so reestablishes faith as foundational, as opposed to individual machinations in the world as a dependency. Second, when combined with the person’s pathway this stepping back tends to reinvigorate personal spiritual authority. In short, the person is no longer scattered about in the world, which allows unity or oneness to reassert its power.
Non-vindictiveness (forgiveness), allows the person to remain whole and to maintain the quality of steadfastness. Within the Law of Retaliation, other attributes will come into play as well.
Let us take verse 41 first, which refers to the Romans, “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” Under Roman law, a soldier transporting a load could require a citizen to assist him for one mile, but for one mile and no more. More distance than that and the citizen’s labor would become unduly interrupted. Also, anyone would resent going much farther, as the toting of the goods would lend itself to slavery. Just because the country was conquered did not make its citizens slaves, and an excessive hauling of goods could lead to rebellion. For Jesus, carrying a load the extra distance demonstrates no malice and is also intended to humble the Roman occupier. Jesus teaches us to demonstrate the character that rises above circumstances.
Jesus essentially tells us to keep our poise and peace, maintaining dignity and stature. In response to Roman demands, Jesus is making a statement concerning character. The stature you maintain becomes part of the active relationship with God, unbroken. Now we begin to see how Jesus so subtly teaches the new state of mind, the new state of thinking, from unenlightened (vindictive, recalcitrant) into the enlightened condition. Many failures in life can be attributed to a lack of two qualities: faithfulness and steadfastness. He teaches us to diffuse the situation and let the spirit go before us and establish a more graceful performance.
John the Baptizer also taught in the same manner, Luke 3.14: “And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, ‘And what should we do?’ And he said unto them, ‘Do violence to no man, neither accuse anyone falsely; and be content with your wages.”
The teaching of staying focused on God, in part by resisting evil actions (Gn. 4.7), becomes the final standard set for all people who follow in Jesus’ footsteps. The revenge viewpoint proselytized by many of the Qumran Essene (scribes and lawyers)*, does not represent the higher relationship with God, as Jesus sees it. Nazarene Essenes, which includes Jesus, opposed pursuant legalism. God’s intent for mankind is instead to pursue a course of peace, even if under duress.
*War Scroll is indicative.
The Hebrew Bible has much to say on the subject of retaliation. Proverbs 20.22, “Say not thou, I will recompense evil; but wait on the Lord, and he shall save thee.” Proverbs 20.22 convenes the Lord within recompense, and not vengeance nor even reaction. This proverb establishes consideration toward God as preceding all important actions. Do not strike out in anger, especially for minor offenses, but “wait on the Lord.” The last reference to “he shall save thee” points to abiding faith as the proper perspective—God justifies His own. John and Jesus both remind listeners of the restored manner in which Jews should live.
Jesus now reveals the final interpretation of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus negates the spirit of rebellion rife within Israel and points to far more important matters at hand. The more important matter is man’s relationship with God, your daily spiritual life, and the manner or way in which you travel. Jesus’s outlook on life draws a stark contrast to the current Jewish framework for thinking, currently afflicted by religious division and infighting, complicated by the Roman occupation. Jesus points to the relationship of God-to-person as the root, and not the Law-to-person as the root; instead, he shrinks the root of the many laws, including the Torah, into a refined method of outlook and behavior, centered on the kingdom within.
The ‘Eye for an Eye’ scripture (5.38-39) in Young’s Literal Translation does not mention the ‘evil man’, as in the NKJV. We will get to the ‘evil man’ later. Young only mentions not to “resist evil, but whoever shall slap the right cheek turn to him also the other.” This scripture actually dovetails into staying out of court, as stated in v. 40, but it also lends itself to forgiveness (5.21-26), and in what manner the forgiveness is proffered. When you pray for those who persecute you, even your enemies, you put yourself in a positive position, the love position if you will—far better than to remain angry, to seek vengeance, and continue to be disturbed, unhappy, disconsolate and unable to continue with your life mission.
In the pagan mentality, retaliation was normally expected—such is the nature of man. God, therefore, curbed the ‘natural instinct’ by insisting crimes be brought into court, removing excessive punishments, and proceeding even-tempered. For Jews of the Old Testament, all that was needed to be righteous was the following of the law. Though efforts at betterment were made, it was also true that no one expected man to change his basic nature, nor that man would be able to do so under his own power, or his own tutelage. Jesus takes up the cause that you can change the natural nature, even if not perfectly so, and this teaching becomes the new root, the early sprig, the nazara.
Relative to man’s ‘natural instinct’ Jesus is saying something quite different than what has previously ruled on planet earth. He espouses a full retreat from what had been normally expected, and thus he turns it inside out. Jesus does not really talk about the law, he talks about the man. The instinct of ‘those of olden times’ must give way to a new man, one who is ‘reborn’ into this new state of consciousness, this changed thinking. Jesus is talking about the enlightenment into God’s true ways, enlightenment into His true nature. The preeminence of man’s laws and his application of those laws is rapidly fading, and what God really intends for man is now being presented.
Earthly courts for earthly laws, but spiritual wisdom is intended to convene a new heavenly court. ‘The sword of the ruler is not wielded in vain, he is an executioner of wrath’, Rom. 13.4, a clear warning that one should be careful with courtroom retaliations.
Let us remember the religious strife between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the many divisions within the Pharisaic priesthood itself. The Romans were their masters, and taxes were heavily laid. Now a rabbi comes to explain a whole different way of going about things, which followers can practice amongst themselves, even if nowhere else, free from the repetition of bondage thinking. Grievances we normally make so much of are now not so important.
Just as John the Baptizer spoke of readying a new consciousness, Jesus tells us what it looks like. Unity replaces divisiveness, strangers are replaced with brotherhood, and the conviction of law is overseen with mercy. It becomes clear that Jesus extricates his Jewish brothers of Old Testament viewpoints and moves them into a whole new way of thinking. Man does not just become free, he becomes free, indeed.
EYE FOR AN EYE
The ‘Eye for an Eye’ scripture is not in the same category as the previous scriptures. Why is this so?
The symbolic note for the ‘Eye for an Eye’ law means to confer commensurate punishment.* Yet the whole structure of the current religious order was under indictment, according to Jesus. Thus, the manner in which the priestly order applied the law was in contention with the new teaching of the Way. Jesus perceived the priesthood as applying Mosaic law without grace (favor or forgiveness). Jesus perceives the priesthood’s application of the whole of the Law as misconstrued.
*Ex. 21.22, “If the people are fighting with each other and happen to hurt a pregnant woman so badly that her unborn child dies, then he must be fined. He must pay the amount set by the woman’s husband and confirmed by judges. (23) But if any harm follows, then you are to give life for life, (24) eye for eye, tooth for tooth…wound for wound and bruise for bruise.”
John 8.1-16, the woman caught in adultery, ends with: (15) “Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man. (16) And yet if I judge, My judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me.”
This scripture describes the current state of the priesthood: they are unreachable, intractable, and they are too aggressive in prosecuting the law. “The old law is abusing you,” Jesus may as well say, and turn your face from it. Particularly in the biblical section called the ‘woes’, Matt. ch. 23, Jesus witnessed relative to this abuse. Jesus cautions to turn away from the laws which are predetermined toward retribution, wherein the old way of thinking, the old law, and the application of it must now subside. It is from Jesus’ viewpoint that courts today apply mercy in certain difficult situations.
* wiping the edge of the cup, Mt. 23.25, “full of extortion and indulgence.”
So, who is smiting thee on the right cheek? It is true that the Romans come under the greatest suspicion. Yet, striking someone hardly seems the issue, for a Jew would not be able to retaliate against a Roman in any case. Turning the other cheek becomes the heart of the matter. To turn away, to decline the offer when the offer is unrighteously proffered; interpreted in this manner the priests and their application of the law are doing the slapping. Essentially, the old law, perhaps needed for a previous time, is now abusing you.
Who were common laws applied against? To the Jewish people themselves. By contrast, the Sadducees would never perceive the law as being imposed against them. In fact, they believed themselves as very strict in following the law. Yet, they bilked money through the Temple tax. The Pharisees were those ‘street priests’ who went about chastising others according to the law. Purification laws and rituals* diluted true spirituality, yet they were full of false pride and false holiness, nor were they averse to taking a coin from a widow to pray a deceased husband into heaven.
*Mt. 23.14, Mk. 12.40; Mt. 5.20; Mt. 15.10-14, Mt. 16.6, Lk. 20.47
Jesus directly addressed the status of the priesthood, obviously criticized them, then usually pointed to a more enlightened standard. Do not allow those whom you consider above you to suppress you! Is there no mercy? Jesus speaks brazenly, much like John the Baptist. To those listening, Jesus tells about a new pathway to freedom.
If your eyes can see, or your ears can hear, turn away from these encompassing and binding laws imparted unto you. Personal laws concerning earthbound beliefs of poverty, lack of faith, and other limitations, become diminished by the enlightened teaching Jesus now provides. “The law and the prophets were until John (Lk. 16.16). “Since that time (the advent of John the Baptist) the kingdom of God [not law] has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it,” Jesus tells his listeners. The intellectual pursuit of the scribes and lawyers has led to convoluted thinking, a certain kind of mental bondage, wherein the enlightenment into God cannot prosper.
Jesus’ new interpretation of the law reaches deep into the heart of a man. To interpret the law with love instead of an abundance of legalism, to love your enemies as you should your neighbor (Mt. 5.43; also, Lev. 19.18), and to come to terms with all enemies by praying for them—this would be the teaching Jesus proselytized. Praying for those who have hurt you, practicing love soul-to-soul, and that faith rises above the consecration of ritual sacrifice, to gain the new vision by this turning of the other cheek, all become the linchpin of a church later to be formed.
What is Jesus teaching us? You drink from the well of the spirit, and no longer from the well of yourself, or the law, or the world—God is above all and oversees all. These teachings are fundamental to the practice of the Way.
It is later Jesus tells the people the method to accomplish this feat, what early Christians would describe as ‘walking in the Way’. ‘Do as they say so that there should be no trouble, but do not do as they do’, Jesus advises in Mt. 23.3, which essentially reminds one to turn the other cheek; and in v.23. 4 he says, “For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” The world we live in today is often similar. Everything about “the scribes and the Pharisees [who] sit in Moses’ seat” is corrupt.
Jesus admonishes and essentially asks what each person is holding onto. Release the laws which bind, embrace the greater faith, the greater love. The old and corrupted religious structure, much like the old structure of the self,* begins to fall short. The new revelation removes the lesser teaching for the greater revelation.
* Matt. 7.3 (board in your eye); Lk. 18.23-27 (rich young ruler); Lk. 18.10-14 (Pharisee and tax collector, false pride). All must give up something to be justified before God. Lk. 18.14, “…this man went down into his house justified… for everyone who exalts himself will be abased, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
In verse forty Jesus cautions against going to court by saying, “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.” This is another way of saying to stay out of conflicts with others and disengage from your usual worldly response. Jesus replaces it with clear teaching which exalts love over retribution. Within such counsel comes the cautionary tale to remove oneself from the deleterious cause-and-effect by which a person enters by anger and hatred. This revolutionary and enlightened message becomes the new core of the Way. It later becomes a standard for the world, a universal truth.
At this moment in history, Jesus offers not only edification, but conversion into a whole new way of thinking and understanding the world, and the individual’s place in it. Jesus understands he is the soul who rightfully can rewrite the proper interpretation of the law, but also elevate the wisdom of the prophets. Through his speaking and actions, he dismisses current priestly authority and teaches the message God wants each person to understand, and the pathway to walk. Later, in John 5.38-47 Jesus speaks to his authority, and in John 3.15 Jesus speaks to his identity.
To his followers, Jesus saves Jews from beliefs in pre-destiny, especially concerning those among the worst of sinners. He moves past the law of the old religion into the forgiveness, mercy, and ultimate grace of the new religion. Jesus brings alive something completely new, something not based upon this complex intellectual delving into the law—this stone upon stone, built from the ground up over the course of centuries, yet now so beaten and battered that it had become anathema to God. This edifice of law upon law and commentary upon commentary cannot stand. To paint it over would not suffice. It must be completely reworked, if not torn down. You must indeed turn the other cheek and move in a new direction.