Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
There are two major issues in these verses. First, is the issue of lex talionis. The Pharisees were misusing the law of Moses, trying to use the principle of lex talionis (‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’) to justify personal revenge or to exact retribution. But, the purpose of the lex talionis was to lay the foundation for justice, specifying the punishment which a wrongdoer deserved, and to limit the compensation of his victim to an exact equivalent and no more. It had the double effect of defining justice and restraining revenge. Furthermore, this principle was part of the civil law of the land of Israel. It prohibited the taking of the law into one’s own hands by the vengeance of a family feud. Jesus’ point was that the law of lex talionis applies to the law court, not to personal relationships. Thus, the Pharisees were using the principle as an excuse for the very thing it was intended to abolish – personal revenge.
The second issue is that of the restoration of honor. Eastern culture is a shame and honor society – when shamed, retaining one’s honor was very important. When their honor was challenged they were to meet insult with insult and assault with assault in order to restore honor. Jesus illustrates the principle of non-retaliation with three illustrations of aggressive behavior aimed at shaming the person – 1. The person who strikes us on the right cheek, 2. The person who takes us to a law court, 3. The person who requires service of us. Jesus is saying that we are not to seek to regain our honor through personal retaliation, but rather to allow ourselves to be shamed, if need be, in the eyes of our community. Jesus knew that if we sought personal retaliation we would be caught in an evil spiral, countering evil with yet more evil (Romans 12:17) as we seek to ‘get even’. The result is that we ourselves become a perpetrator of evil and are caught in a cycle of hatred and revenge. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a sermon based on this text, “hate multiplies hate…in a descending spiral of violence’ and is ‘just as injurious to the person who hates as to his victim’…’love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend for it has creative and redemptive power.’” We are to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). Evil leads to more evil, but meeting evil with good brings freedom and redemption.