ANTITHESIS and the WAY: RETALIATION
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.
All of the scriptures in Law of Retaliation address the proper manner in which to walk in a New Way: to stand with integrity, be wary of worldly entanglements, and if at all possible not to reply with vindictiveness. This allows the individual to perform in two important attributes of character. The first tends to remove the individual from heated engagements (worldliness), and thus reestablishes faith as foundational. The second 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 be unduly interrupted. Too great a disruption in labor meant a disruption in taxes. The Romans exacted about a thirty percent tax from their territories, just as they did in Israel and Judea. Also, anyone would resent going much farther, and the toting of the goods would lend itself to slavery. Just because you were a conquered country did not make you a slave, and this excessive hauling of goods could lead to rebellion. For Jesus, carrying a load the extra distance shows no malice and is intended to humble the Roman occupier.
Accommodating a circumstance you cannot change practices a kind of reverse love. You may be under bondage or burden, but instead of rebelling, you accommodate with grace. You are enabled to keep your poise and peace, of which Jesus gives us a fine example throughout his ministry. Maintaining dignity and stature, you make a statement of character. The stature you maintain becomes an 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 into the enlightened condition. People always become more and more like the thing they relate to. In this case, Jesus teaches to remain composed with God (Jn. 10.30, “I and the Father are one.”), or at one with Him.
Jesus is ameliorating the situation. What good is it to show anger and resentment when that battle has already been fought? Do the opposite and keep your peace! Keep in mind that the ethos of the Way is simultaneously practical and spiritual. The Way is intended to unite heaven and earth for the individual’s experience and edification. For this reason, wisdom teaching takes the highest precedence, just as it should in everyday life. What to do about the Romans? Go the extra mile, Jesus says.
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), is not a higher relationship with God. Nazarene Essenes, which include Jesus, opposed pursuant legalism. God’s intent for mankind is to pursue peace.
The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) 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 intended actions. Do not strike out in anger, especially for minor offenses, but to “wait on the Lord.” The last reference to “he shall save thee” points to abiding faith as the proper perspective– God justifies His own. In Jesus’ day, this had been largely forgotten. John and Jesus both remind listeners of the restored way of going about how 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 essentially tells people far more important matters lay at hand. The more important matter is the relationship with God, your daily spiritual life, the manner or way in which you travel. Jesus speaks to every man on a pathway and points to the person as the root, and not the law as the root. He counsels to not contend, but rather to continue to move in the spirit and maintain peace. These themes will be presented throughout the Jesus teaching of the Way. Jesus’s outlook on life is in stark contrast to the current Jewish framework for thinking, which was currently afflicted by religious division and infighting, not to mention dealing with the Roman occupation.
The ‘Eye for an Eye’ scripture (v. 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, stated in v. 40. It also lends itself to forgiveness (v. 5.21-26), and in what manner the forgiveness is proffered.
The Way is a pathway of greater peace or being settled in the spirit. Referring to the above scripture the Way also becomes a pathway of conscience toward God. It is a pathway traveled with a certain grace and dignity, that truthfully had never been offered to the Jewish people. For all previous prophets had mentioned Jesus’ teaching in parts, but no one except Messiah could place it all together, and then provide the final interpretations required.
Under the old law, retaliation was normally expected. Such is the nature of man. Though efforts at betterment were made, such as attribution to God, laws for an orderly society, some mentioning of love and forgiveness, 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, his own tutelage. God curbed the ‘natural instinct’ by insisting retaliation be brought into a court, and that punishment should not be excessive, but even-tempered and evenly applied. For Jews of the Old Testament no more need to be understood than the following of the law.
Relative to man’s ‘natural instinct’ Jesus is saying something quite different. He espouses a full retreat from the worldliness which is normally expected. He does not so much interpret the law as much as he turns it inside out. Jesus is not really talking about the law, he is talking about the man. The instinct of ‘them of old time’ 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 laws God has previously imposed is rapidly fading, and what God really intends for man is now being presented.
In this interesting proposal which Jesus makes, the court and the magisterial authority would be rarely used. No longer will men be judged after rules and rules only, but by a spiritual standard never truly discussed before. Earthly courts for earthly laws, but spiritual wisdom is intended to convene a new heavenly court. Cannot two men with integrity and good faith work out a problem? If that were so then no one would be dragging the other into court for something which, in fact, he might not have done. ‘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 laid heavily. Now a rabbi comes to explain a whole different way of going about things, of which followers can practice amongst themselves, even if nowhere else. You are not just free from any real threat from a court, but free from a certain kind of bondage thinking– all men become equal, each considers God’s viewpoint before they thrust forth with their own. Grievances we normally make so much of are now not so important. Where before wrath had to be brought into order, wisdom takes hold.
Just as John the Baptizer spoke of readying a new consciousness, Jesus tells us what it looks like. Divisiveness is replaced with unity. Strangers are replaced with brotherhood. The conviction of law is replaced with consolation, healing, and favor (grace). It is becoming more clear that Jesus is extricating his Jewish brothers out of Old Testament viewpoints and moving 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 layered meaning of Jesus’ words was intended to strike a symbolic note. 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. 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) and without a certain spiritual dignity. Jesus perceives the priesthood’s application of the whole of the Law as misconstrued.
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 judgement 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 unteachable; they are intractable, and they are far too aggressive in prosecuting the law. ‘The old law is abusing you’, Jesus may as well have said, ‘turn your face from it’. This perception of abuse is given witness in many different scriptures, particularly in the biblical section called the ‘woes’, Matt. ch. 23. Jesus cautions to turn away from the laws which are determinant to retribution, wherein the old way of thinking, the old law and the application of it must now subside.
* 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 must be considered the most obvious answer. 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 means you must look in another direction. This scripture may have less to do with the common explanation of how to deal with the Roman occupation but may have more to do with the state of Judaism in Jesus’ day. Interpreted in this manner it is the priests and their application of the law who are doing the slapping.
Who were common laws applied against? The laws were applied to the Jewish people themselves, the people Jesus spoke to every day. Contrarily, 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, and usually pointed to a more enlightened standard. Here lies the crux of ‘Eye for an Eye’. The recurring contrast Jesus provides points to a new consciousness, an awakening, and one which is not beholden to sets of rules, but one which endeavors to please the spirit of God, and further, that each man must now manifest this spirit.
Do not allow those whom you consider being above you to suppress you! Is there no mercy? Jesus speaks brazenly, much like John the Baptist. To those listening to Jesus tells about a new pathway to freedom, and by implication, the rabbi Jesus offers that new pathway. When the face has turned and the opposite cheek is exposed, you will see Jesus standing before you. As Messiah, this would become his rightful office.
If your eyes can see, or your ears can hear, turn away from these encompassing and binding laws that have been imparted to you. These laws can also be earthbound beliefs of poverty, to lack faith, and other limitations, all of which are left behind 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 has not prospered. The Shekinah moves as you open the door, he tells them.
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, the practice of love soul-to-soul, that faith is above the consecration of ritual sacrifice, to gain the new vision by this turning of the other cheek, all become the linch-pin of a church later to be formed.
What is Jesus teaching us? To disengage from the law and the religiosity of the current priesthood becomes the new standard, and is the first part of his revolutionary teaching. The second part directs to receive the spirit, awaken, known to Christians as a true awakening or rebirth, or for others, the enlightenment. Jesus repeats these themes throughout his teachings, and what the real kingdom looks like. God is above all and oversees all. These teachings are fundamental to the practice of the Way. You drink from the well of the spirit, and no longer from the well of yourself, or the law, or the world.
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’, he 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 structure of the religion must be removed, much like the old structure of the self,* for the new revelation has arrived. The new revelation removes the lesser teaching for greater understanding.
* 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, disengage from your usual worldly response. The accepted way of thinking, that with which you are so familiar, with now requires a new vision. ‘Disengage from the re-engagement’, leave the spite and bitterness and move into forgiveness and love— leave the letter of the law and embrace the spirit of the law.
To further this message Jesus tells us, “And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two” (Mt. 6.41). This actually refers to the Romans, as mentioned. In this case, going the extra mile extends good faith unto an enemy, and allows the Jews to move past the hate and resentment they hold for the pagan Romans. Again, the laying to rest of the old way of thinking, to see a new light, and proceed with life accordingly, with verse 42 basically saying to be a friend to all righteous men, give to him who asks of you.
Jesus spoke against the warlike and hate rhetoric of not only the Pharisees and Sadducees but also of those whom he knew very well, the celibate priests of the Qumran Essene, whom we know as the scribes and the lawyers:
“But power, might and great flaming wrath by the hand of all the Angels of Destruction towards those who depart from the way and abhor the Precept. They shall have no remnant or survivor. For from the beginning God chose them not; He knew their deeds before ever they were created and He hated their generations, and He hid His face from the land until they were consumed,” from the Damascus Document: The Rules, Exhortation, Dead Sea Scrolls.
Jesus resolves the contentious spirit and vitriol as written in the Exhortation. He reduces it to rubble with the profound message to turn away from this conflicted view on life and following in verses Matt. 5.43-48 he 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 relationships 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 your place in it.
Jesus understands he is the soul who rightfully can rewrite the proper interpretation of the law, but also 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. He offers those who believe in him that they may be saved from what appears to be a pre-destiny as written in the Exhortation, especially concerning those who may be among the worst of sinners, and 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, and now so beaten and battered that it had become anathema to God. This edifice of law upon law and commentary upon commentary could no longer be continued. To paint it over would not suffice. It must be completely torn down. You must indeed turn the other cheek.