Commentary on Matthew 5:38-42
We continue Jesus’ interpretations of some commands of the Mosaic Law as he pushes that law to a higher level of understanding.
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is not, as it may seem to be saying, an encouragement to take revenge. It is part of what is known as the lex talionis by which punishment for an assault was to be restricted to not more than the suffering experienced. So Exodus 21:23-24 says: “You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stroke for stroke.”
Jesus calls for a very different kind of response. He tells us to offer the “wicked man” no resistance.
He makes the famous recommendation to turn the other cheek. If a man would take your tunic, give him your cloak as well. If someone asks you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to the one who begs and do not turn away a borrower.
It is not surprising that even in Christian circles not a great deal of time is given to this text. Is it to be taken literally? Are we really to allow people to walk over us and offer no resistance at all?
I think the answer is both Yes and No.
For many in our “macho”-idealised world, turning the other cheek seems the ultimate in wimpishness and cowardice. It is certainly not the way of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and countless other “heroes” on our cinema and TV screens. Can you imagine them turning the other cheek?
But Jesus did. During his trial before the Sanhedrin “they spat in his face and hit him with their fists; others said as they struck him, ‘Play the prophet, Christ! Who hit you then?’” (Matt 26:67-68). What was Jesus’ response? Silence. This was turning the other cheek. Was this weakness or was it strength? Which is easier to do under great provocation: to practise self-restraint and keep one’s dignity or to lash out in retaliation? By lashing out one comes down to the same level as one’s attackers. (This is quite different from self-defence.)
In another account of Jesus’ trial (John 18:22-23), after having given an answer to a question, “one of the guard standing by gave Jesus a slap in the face, saying, ‘Is that the way to answer the high priest?’ Jesus replied, ‘If there is something wrong in what I said, point it out; but if there is no offence in it, why do you strike me?’” Here Jesus does respond to the attack but on a totally different level. The physical and unreasonable attack on an unarmed person is actively responded to on the basis of reason and non-violence. Jesus is not a victim here; he is in control. And this is true of the whole experience of the passion. His executioners behave in the most barbaric way but he never loses his calm and dignity right up to the very end.
And that is why we worship him as our Lord and Master. He asks us to follow in his footsteps.
Revenge, in all its various forms, is the easier way, the more instinctive way but it is not the better way. The way of active (not passive) non-violence is, in the long run, far more productive, far more in keeping with human ideals and human dignity. We have more than enough evidence in our world of the bankruptcy of a never-ending cycle of violence and counter-violence. We see it in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland. Violence does not pay; revenge is not sweet.
The example of Jesus has been followed by a number of outstanding people in our own time. Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parkes who inspired him, in the US, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany, Dorothy Day in the US, Jean Goss and Hildegard Meyer of the active non-violence movement in Europe… All of these people were actively involved in the correction of seriously unjust situations.
There is a striking scene in the film “To Kill a Mocking Bird” where the lawyer (played by Gregory Peck) has been defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. As a white man himself the lawyer earns the hatred and contempt of his fellow-whites for defending a “nigger” they have already condemned as guilty. In this scene one of the townspeople approaches the lawyer and spits into his face. The lawyer stands there, says nothing, and slowly wipes away the spit. For the film viewer the contempt immediately shifts to the man who spat. The positive non-action of the lawyer reveals the smallness of his assailant.
Turning the other cheek is not at all a sign of weakness. It requires great inner strength, self-respect and even respect for the dignity of one’s attacker. Jesus is calling us a long way forward and upward from “an eye for an eye”.