Retaliation versus Restoration 5:38-42
It would be hard to find a passage that has been used and abused to spawn more nonsense than this one. It seems precious few commentators have ever bothered to discover the context in Hebrew history. It’s more than a matter of Hellenized Judaism, but most folks seem genuinely confused how this point of law actually played out in the Old Testament.
The business of “eye for an eye” is noted in Exodus 21 and Leviticus 24. It was already a common concept across the Ancient Near East, and the actual legal interpretation varied. In common Old Testament practice, it was rarely meant literally. There is a particular focus on the perpetrator who causes a loss, and it clearly covers the whole range of losses that occurred against shalom: material prosperity, physical safety and health, and general social stability. The focus on physical injury is symbolic for all losses. The point here is the perpetrator’s duty to the Covenant and to shalom.
We notice that the intent here is to calculate the loss in terms of the perpetrator’s shalom. So if a ditch digger crushes the hand of an artisan, the case must be settled in terms of what the injury would cost the perpetrator, not the value it holds for the victim. This actually aims to prevent retaliation, and replaces it with the idea of covenant restoration. In this one case, the early Talmud did not contradict Moses. Instead, the real problem with Pharisees was their frequent lawsuits over trifles.
This is what Jesus turns on its head. Instead of constant haggling over petty bean-counting amounts in legalistic wrangling over the duty of transgressors, how about the victim catch a vision of his duty under the Covenant? How about restoring the ancient moral ethics of desert nomads? A man would often demonstrate, not his own wealth, but his feudal lord’s wealth, by generosity. He would give freely in the name of his master. It reflected well on his master’s reputation; he didn’t have room in his life to worry too much about his own glory.
The Talmud set a pretty high cash penalty for slapping another man in public, roughly equivalent to the price of a slave. A slap was meant to humiliate without actually doing any serious damage. So did someone insult you? Does it feel like being slapped in public? Smile and offer them the other cheek. Show to everyone just how petty your assailant is, and how unconcerned you are by his trifling tantrum. “Does that make you feel better? Well here, hit this other side, too.”
Some peasants would offer the most valuable thing they had as collateral on a loan, something they generally couldn’t live without: their cloak. That was the outer garment folks carried and could not be kept as loan security according to Moses, so in legalistic nit-picking, you would see lawsuits over a debtor’s tunic instead. That was rather like a long shirt, worn next to the skin. It was a common item in lawsuits against peasants, who seldom had more than one. Does someone seek to take your shirt? Give him your coat, as well. Poor fellow, he must really be in need to take your shirt. Your Lord will provide what you need. Obviously this other fellow has no Lord like yours to protect him.
And not just your fellow Jews, but how about extending this kind of moral reasoning to Gentiles? It was common practice that Roman soldiers could “tax” imperial subjects directly in the form of labor, conscripting some stout fellow to carry the soldier’s combat gear and armor as he traveled (Roman soldiers seldom traveled alone, so you would see groups of conscripts trailing behind the military formation.) The legal distance was a Roman mile (roughly 1500 meters), but that was often abused. Still, Jesus reminds His audience the Covenant said strangers were to be treated equal to your fellow Jews when it comes to basic hospitality. Why not go the extra mile so you can tell the Roman soldier what a mighty God we serve?
It’s not just the Pharisees’ legalistic reflex of carrying a few pennies to give to beggars, but the broader protocol of your Lord’s generous provision for you. It should be obvious that you don’t simply give away your inheritance. Your heart will know when someone asks too much, when it would risk your divine mission. Rather, try to keep in stock enough basic necessities to share with those in genuine need. Don’t be afraid to take a risk now and then for the glory of God. This is what the Messiah will be looking for when He restores the Covenant.
Addenda: In response to a query — The Law of Moses placed physical combat into a different category from this stuff. The issue is not injuries sustained in fighting, but injuries sustained when at least one party is not fighting back. All the more does it apply when the victim is not legally permitted to resist. It’s a matter of accidental or unjust loss. Thus, Jesus is not addressing at all the issue of combat or self-defense.