An Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth

Sermon preached on Matthew 5:38-42 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/18/2014 in Novato, CA.

Audio recording not available due to technical difficulties.

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Matthew 5:38-42

“An Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth”

We continue today our study through the Sermon on the Mount, and we continue to consider the lacking righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Here is Jesus’ fifth of six examples where he challenges their traditional teaching and understanding of God’s Word with his authoritative teaching. And as we come to verses 38-42 today, we come to a passage that is often the source of much debate regarding its interpretation. Some have taken these verses and used them to make the case for things like pacifism. Some have even said that such verses demand that we don’t even have police officers, because that would be resisting an evil person. Many other similarly strange applications of Jesus’ words have been suggested by some. Now, for many Christians, such interpretations surely strike us as not sounding right. And yet the proponents of such views often claim to just trying to be literal to the text. As good Orthodox Presbyterians, we can appreciate the desire. We want to be literal to the text. We are all about understanding the literal meaning of the Scriptures and not trying to explain away passages, just because they may seem difficult for us to accept. When then do we do with these verses for today?

Well if the pacifistic notions and the like have sounded off to you, it is for good reason. Let me offer some initial reflection on this by way of introduction, and then we’ll dig into the details. What we have in these four verses is some very compact teaching of Jesus. It’s just a few words on a very big subject. And not only that, but he does the same thing in this whole chapter regarding the lacking righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. In 28 verses he gives six examples about their lacking righteousness, where he interacts with the Old Testament teaching, critiques the faulty approach of the Pharisees, and gives his correction. The point is that this is a lot of information with only a few words. It’s very helpful and powerful teaching, but the bottom line is that when you talk about more clear and less clear passages of Scripture, when something is said in brief, it often can fall more into the category of being less clear. I think that’s why these few verses on this subject for today have been the source of some debate regarding their interpretation.

Thankfully, we have a fairly simple way to handle this. It’s the principle I mentioned recently in Sunday School. Here it is: Scripture interprets Scripture. The more clear passages explain the less clear passages. Jesus’ few but important words here must be understood in light of the rest of the Scripture’s teachings. When we do that, we find there is a great challenge here. It’s a challenge to deny ourselves in showing radical love and grace to enemies and to the undeserving. But not in a way that disregards justice, or the role of the civil magistrate, or various other relevant biblical teachings on the subjects raised in these verses.

So then, to understand Jesus’ teachings here properly, let’s see how Scripture interprets Scripture here. Let’s make sure we do that properly today as we approach this passage. Let’s begin then with verse 38. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'” Here we remember that this concept is a scriptural concept. It’s from the Old Testament. But Jesus again appears to be combating, not the Old Testament law, but the way the scribes and the Pharisees misused the Old Testament law. So then, what was the Old Testament Scripture on this? What did the authoritative Word of God in the Old Testament say about this subject? Well, there are multiple places in Old Testament where we find the principle of an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. For example, Exodus 21:22-27 and Lev 24:19-20 both explicitly use this language. As you look at those passages, the purpose of the laws are pretty clear. They were particularly instructing the judges in Israel about justice. The concept is basically that the legal punishment for a crime committed must be suitable to the crime. The punishment must fit the crime, proportionately speaking. This particularly was to protect about punishments that were more harsh than they should be. In our own legal system this is the basis for an important principle known as the lex talionis priniciple. The latin there is literally the law of retaliation. It’s the retaliation authorized by the law where the punishment corresponds to the injury in kind and degree.

So for example, in the Leviticus 24 passage that mentions the eye for an eye idea, it goes on to say that if you kill a neighbor’s animal, you shall restore it. But if you kill a man, you shall be put to death. An animal for an animal, a human life for a human life. Along these lines, this would say it would be illegal and unjust to kill a human because they killed your animal. That would violate the eye for an eye principle. The punishment must fit the crime. Of course, on the flip side, this would also say that the punishment must be severe enough too. If you kill a human, surely it would not be a sufficient punishment to just have you pay a fine of one animal. So it goes both ways. But you see the eye for an eye principle is not to be seen as too harsh or too lenient. It’s supposed to just be “just”. The Old Testament laws and stipulations wanted the people and especially the judges of the land to be concerned about justice and equity and fairness. That’s what this principle taught. And so let’s be clear: from a justice stand point, this is right on. The eye for an eye principle is just and good and right. It’s something to affirm.

But again, Jesus is not combating the Old Testament teachings here. He’s combating the flawed righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Given the context and the examples Jesus goes on to use here, it seems safe to assume that the scribes and Pharisees were taking this legal principle of an eye for an eye, and using it in a wrong way. Likely, they used it at time to justify a spirit of personal revenge and retribution in their interactions with others. Nor did they seem to understand how this eye for an eye principle needed to relate to the personal qualities of grace, mercy, and generosity, that God’s people should also embrace. Jesus does not deny that an eye for an eye is an appropriate principle for the legal system of the government to use. But Jesus in his examples shows that he’s not talking about what happens in the judicial system. He’s talking about our personal interactions with each other. He’s showing that the eye for an eye concept is not some absolute principle that should govern your attitude and every interaction with other people on an individual basis. Jesus here says no. Jesus confronts them with the need for radical mercy and grace to be shown in such personal interactions. It’s as he’ll go on to deal with in the passage we’ll look at next week: we need to love even enemies. An eye for an eye since of strict justice is what we want our judges to do. We too have to stand up for that from time to time. But in our common interactions with others, we need to see the call for love, mercy, and grace to shine through as well.

As we mention the Old Testament, this is present even there. Leviticus 19:17, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” The next verse then says, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge.” Proverbs 20:22, “Do not say, “I will recompense evil; Wait for the LORD, and He will save you.” God says in Deuteronomy 32:35, ” Vengeance is mine, and recompense.” In other words, some of the very same tension we’ve already mentioned present in today’s verses is found there in the Old Testament. On the one hand, there is an eye for an eye principle that rightly informs especially the justice system. On the other hand, there is this principle that personal vengeance is not to be taken. If you think you are a victim, there is the due process of law to follow — that’s justice, not to make yourself judge, jury, and executioner as well. We need to look for justice to the God-instituted justice system. And even then, Jesus teaches us how love for neighbor nonetheless must reign through it all. This is present even in the Old Testament. Scripture interprets Scripture. Jesus says it even more clearly here.

So then, let’s turn now to focus further on the specific positive teaching of Jesus here. Again, use Scripture to interpret Scripture. He starts in verse 39 with his correction. “But I tell you not to resist an evil person.” This seems to be the general principle that Jesus gives here, and then he goes on to give some more specific examples. We should not understand this simplistically. From a government standpoint, we see in passages like Romans 13 that it’s the God-given job of the government to resist evil people! And we know that in general, Christians must resist evil in some sense. For example, in James 4:7 and 1 Peter 5:9 we are told to resist the devil — he’s the greatest evil person! And Scripture tells us in places like Ephesians 6 that we are in a spiritual battle against evil. Nor can this mean that we should never look to find a remedy and a reconciliation when even a Christian sins against us — just remember that in Matthew 18, the same book, Jesus explains such a process — of how to work through a situation where a brother sins against you — does some evil against you. These are but a few passages that must come to mind when we hear that we are not to resist an evil person. There is a certain sense in which we are to not resist an evil person, but on the other hand there is a sense in which we should. This must not be an absolute statement. Rather, we need to rightly understand what Jesus means here when he says this.

So, what is Jesus getting at then when he says “Don’t resist an evil person”? Well, remember the context. He’s addressing an abuse of the eye for an eye principle. So, if an evil person does some evil to you, you might be tempted to use the eye for an eye principle to do some evil right back at them. But Jesus is saying to not to resist them in that way. You mother probably taught you a similar lesson when you were growing up. Maybe a mean kid at school pushed you, so you pushed him back. You both get in trouble by the teacher, and when you get home you try to defend you actions to you mother and she says, “No, two wrongs don’t make a right”. And so, in context, this seems to be the idea here of “don’t resist an evil person.”

This is said more clearly in 1 Peter 3:8-17, particularly verse 9. That seems to be a pretty similar teaching by Peter as what we have here in the Sermon on the Mount. Likely Peter is recalling this message. And there Peter starts by saying “Do not repay evil for evil”. That seems to be the same idea that Jesus is getting at. Don’t think that the eye for an eye principle means that if someone gives you evil, that you are justified to do that same evil back to them. Don’t think that just because they injure or insult you, that you have the right to take matters into your own hands and do the same thing back to them. They did you an evil, so you will do them an evil. But that’s what Jesus seems to be saying. Don’t do that. Don’t resist the evil person by just trying to be evil back to them! Don’t repay evil for evil.

This is further illustrated by Jesus’ next statement. He gives a sort of example. Look at verse 39. He goes on to say, that “whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” What does this mean? Should we take this literally? Apparently Jesus himself didn’t — remember, Scripture interprets Scripture. In John 18, when Jesus is on trial before the high priest, one of the officers didn’t like how Jesus responded to the high priest, and so he struck him on the face with his hand. How did Jesus respond? Did he literally turn the other cheek? Not according to John 18:23. He actually confronted the officer saying, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you strike Me?” Jesus in that court room setting objected to a great injustice. You could say he even invokes the eye for an eye principle there, because he got slapped for no reason, and so he asked why that happened. And Jesus was right to do so, because it was an unjust action by that officer. The teachings of Jesus in these verses do not do away with the demand of justice. But surely Jesus was not answering out of a concern for his self. Surely Jesus was answering out of a concern for justice, and even the officer who acted so unjustly there.

What then does it mean to turn the other cheek? Well, the slap in itself seems to be representing the way people can insult you. A back handed slap across your right cheek is not typically going to be something geared to really injure you, but to shame or insult you. You see, this is what this is really getting at — when someone goes to insult you or shame you, how will you respond? If you take the legal idea of an eye for an eye and inappropriately apply it to that circumstance, you might think you should just insult them back. But no, Jesus says. Don’t revile and insult in return. Don’t keep the tit for tat cycle up, that will just fuel a cycle of continued conflict between you and that other person. Let them treat you with evil. You treat them with love and kindness. That’s Christ’s righteousness lived out on an individual level.

Now again, this idea is not opposed to justice and working through conflicts and finding reconciliation. An example of this is when Paul and Silas in Acts 16. They were mistreated by the civil magistrate, falsely beaten and imprisoned, which was a violation of Roman law, and then the civil magistrate later tried to just secretly let them go. But Paul protested and demanded that the magistrate personally come and release them, obviously looking for the magistrate to acknowledge his injustice and make things right. But I don’t believe Paul violated Jesus’ principle here. Paul was concerned that justice be done there, and there is nothing wrong with looking to promote justice and even to hold people accountable to justice. But that’s different than if Paul was just acting out in some evil way trying to vindictively insult and shame the magistrate because he was so personally offended that someone would treat him that way. We don’t see any such spirit coming from Paul like that.

That being said, apart from the question of the steps you might take to be reconciled with some person who insults you, there is this principle of turning the other cheek. When someone insults you, you don’t just insult them in return, saying an eye for an eye. No, take their insults after insults and don’t take their bait where they are trying to start a fight with you. In fact, by you bearing up under their insults, this can even shame the other person into repenting of their evil toward you. In other words, when they insult you and you don’t respond in kind, they might realize their evil, and repent of it. Again, that passage in 1 Peter seems to tracking along here when it says to not repay reviling for reviling. That’s the turn the other cheek idea. Let them insult you. Don’t say an eye for and eye and then insult them back.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. His next example take this idea even further. Not only should we not repay evil with evil, but we should look to even bless our enemies. They do you evil, and you in return do them good. Look at verse 40, “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.” What’s Jesus point here? Well, so far, we’ve talked about how in personal conflict we have to be careful not to use the eye for an eye principle to do some evil in return. We’ve emphasized that this often happens on a personal level, outside of the due process of law. But here Jesus uses the example of an actual legal battle. Someone is out to legally sue you for your tunic. Jesus says to let them have it. And not only that, but even your cloak. What’s interesting is that Exodus 22:26 essentially protected a person’s cloak. You could take someone’s tunic to settle a legal debt, but not their cloak. That was to protect the person, in case that is all they had to keep them warm that night.

You see, the eye for an eye principle can be misapplied so that we have this very legal attitude toward others. Not only can we use wrongly use it to justify giving them evil in return, but we can also use it to say I’m not going to give you any more than my absolute legal obligation. Humans in our conflicts with each other tend to demand our legal rights. We can be so litigious, so legal, in our relationships. Jesus challenges our legal attitudes though with a call of radical love and grace and mercy. There doesn’t seem to be any legal reason why the person suing you should be able to get your cloak too, but Jesus says that if they want to take from you so bad, then go ahead and give them your cloak too even. Go above and beyond their demands of you. If they try to wrong you, bless them in return. That’s again what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:9, “Bless and do not curse.” Peter goes on to say that we find blessing in such blessing of enemies.

This can be hard. In it all, our focus can be on our “self”. We might say, “I have to defend my honor and my rights at all cost.” It’s all about “me”. That being said, this doesn’t mean you have to just always give in to whoever sues you for whatever reason, to the point of being naked and on the streets. Rather, Jesus uses this example to get to our heart. What’s our attitude toward our oppressor? And what’s our attitude toward our “self”? Can you find a way to bless the oppressor? Maybe it involves the tough-love blessing of finding their defeat in court when they sue you. But where is your heart? Is it about defending yourself on every front, insisting on your rights? Or in love for enemies, do you show underserved grace to such people?

The next example is similar. Verse 41, “And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” Here the word for “compel” was generally used by governments that compelled you into some mandatory service. In this sense, it was usually when governments needed some kind of thing transported from one place to another, they’d forcefully conscript whoever was there to transport the cargo for some distance. Then they’d conscript another person to take over for the next leg of the journey. They’d do that until they completed the task. This was a fairly common practice. It was a legal obligation to do what you were being asked to do. Think of even the man Simon of Cyrene who was forced by the Romans to carry Jesus’ cross when he couldn’t carry it any farther. Jesus says if they demand one mile from you, give them a second. The application is pretty similar to the previous example about the cloak. You could say in your heart that the “eye for an eye principle” means I’m only legally obligated to go one mile, so that is all that I will give. But Jesus says to go above and beyond your legal duty. This is where the saying of “go the extra mile” comes from. Though the simple legal idea of an eye for an eye is true; though it is just; Jesus calls us to go beyond that. There are times to radically love and give to others beyond what they actually deserve or warrant, or what is strictly required of you.

Finally, look at verse 42. Two related examples, “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.” These two similar examples seem to take this idea one step further. Notice the progression. First Jesus showed that we should not return evil for evil. Then he showed that we should go a step further and look to bless and give unto those who would demand of us. Now here’s an even further step. We are to bless and give unto those who have needs. In light of the eye for an eye idea, this probably has in mind the common temptation that could come when people come to us with needs. We might judge them and think something like, “Well, I earned all my money with my hard work and I’m going to keep it for myself. You don’t deserve what I have.” We might think it is just being fair: an eye for an eye.”

But again, Scripture needs to interpret Scripture. If we take this as some absolute statement, and apply it without any wisdom or in light of complementary teachings of Scripture, we would be perverting the point here. We need to be good stewards of our financial resources, and if we give away so much that our families go hungry, then that is not Biblical stewardship. Or in the same way, there are professional beggars out there; people who can but won’t work; the Bible calls them sluggards or idle, and calls such behavior sin. Paul even says that such people shall not eat. In other words, we need to not just go and give money to such people, lest we contribute to their sinful living. Even when there is real need, this passage must not mean that we are morally obligated to give financially unto each and every person who comes to us asking in that need, because even the apostles Peter and John did not literally do that for the crippled beggar in Acts 3. So, again, an overly simplistic understanding of verse 42 must be rejected.

And yet, we have to take care to not use those other passages of Scripture to do away with any application of this passage. We have to check our attitude that the poor or needy person is just getting what they deserve, saying “an eye for an eye” in our mind. We have to be challenged with the call to deny our self in order to generously give to others. Time and again in these examples we need to be greatly challenged with our attitudes. We have to make sure that when we have Scripture interpret scripture that we don’t disregard these teachings here just because there are qualifications on when and how we actually live them out. We need wisdom to know when and how to apply them, but we should make sure we’ve not so explained them away that we wouldn’t actually ever find any circumstance where they apply.

I think that would be a far too easy temptation. I suspect Jesus used such bold statements here to really challenge us in an area that we naturally resist. You see, you could summarize the heart behind all of this in the concept of denying ourselves. It’s like what Jesus says in Matthew 16:24, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” The kind of radical love and grace and mercy that we are called to personally show to undeserving people, is surely going to stem from this attitude of denying ourselves. If we don’t deny ourselves, we will always insist on our own rights, on our own honor, on our own needs, on what we earned — that it is ours. But if we deny ourselves and our following Christ, suddenly his radical love and grace and mercy is what we are striving for. Suddenly, we’ll see the people who injure as people with some of the greatest needs around us. And our heart will be softened toward the poor and afflicted in our midst. Yes, we’ll still agree with the principle of justice embodied in an eye for an eye. But we’ll add to that compassion for others because we are not consumed with “self”. Let us deny ourselves and follow Christ, even in this regard. Another way of talking about this underlying attitude can be to just go back to the first verse of this Sermon on the Mount. To recall that quality of being poor in spirit. To have this kind of attitude toward our personal relationships with others, is going to flow from that poverty in spirit that God has worked in our hearts.

Saints of God, it’s one thing for Jesus to just say all this today. But, he did far more than just say it. He himself denied his self, and took up his cross. He did not repay our evil done to God with evil. He did not resist those who arrested him and took him to die on the cross. Jesus turned the other cheek, so to speak. He went the extra mile. He gave to us who could never afford what he purchased on our behalf. Jesus could have just flaunted the eye for an eye principle in all our faces, and say that when we go to hell we are just getting what we deserved. But he didn’t. He instead went to the cross to die for us there. It was from there that he cried out, “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” This is what makes sense of these verses today. The radical love and grace and mercy that Jesus showed to us, even while we were yet enemies. That same Jesus is in us now as his people. His heart for both justice and mercy is at work now in our hearts. Let us seek by grace to grow in this as his disciples. Praise be to God. Amen.

Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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