Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on Matthew 5:38-42.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:38-39).
I recently ran across a commentator who observed, “The world would be different today if Jesus had never delivered his Sermon on the Mount…” (Hilarion Alfeyev, The Sermon on the Mount, 175). Indeed, Christ’s words changed lives, and they changed hearts, and they are still doing so today.
In this passage Christ presents his teaching on non-retaliation against evil-doers. Some of the teaching here has become idiomatic in our language. We talk about turning the other cheek or going the extra mile.
Christ’s words here have probably done more to promote peace among individual men and to forestall violence and the exactment of revenge than any other words spoken by any man in human history. That’s what the commentator meant when he said that the world would be different today if the Lord Jesus had never delivered this sermon.
The “eye for an eye” teaching is found in at least three places in the OT (Exod 21:23-25; Lev 24:17-20; Deut 19:19-21). Interestingly enough, this is one of the few passages from the Bible that was picked up and used in the Koran. In Surah 5:45 it reads “A life for life, and eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds retaliation” (Arberry translation). The underlying principle is that the person who injures another should be penalized for his misdeed to a degree proportional to the injury he has done.
This teaching is often wrongly seen as barbaric. Gandhi, for example, famously said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth only makes the world blind and toothless! But Gandhi missed this point. This law is, in fact, gracious. It is meant to limit the level of retaliation and demand that it be proportional to the crimes committed.
It provides a limit to the sinful inclination of sinful men. Before this law, men might have said: If you knock out my tooth I’ll knock out your tooth, and I’ll gouge out your eye, and I will burn down your house, and I will kill all your livestock, and then slaughter your children before your eyes, etc. See how this law was in fact good in that it limited sinful levels of disproportional retaliation. Paul said, “the law is good, if a man uses it lawfully” (1 Tim 1:8).
Christ, however, demands even more from his disciples than it seems they can possibly give: “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil” (Matt 5:39a). The point is that when the disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ is attacked or pressed by one who has evil intentions against him, he is not to feel that his well-being and defense depends on what he is able to do for himself.
The apostle Paul will later pick up on this theme in Romans 12 when he says things like, “Recompense to no man evil for evil” (v. 17a), “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath” (v. 19a), and “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21).
This is a call for more than we, in the flesh, are capable of doing. Christ, however, has provided us an example, especially in his passion. He endured with silence his affliction and when stricken he turned the other cheek. He prayed for the ones who crucified him (Luke 23:24).
In the end, then, the thing we find most baffling is not the stringency or the strangeness of the ethic Christ demands from us, but the realization of what he did for us, when we evil-doers were yet sinners. He laid down his life for us!
Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle