Day 31: Matthew 5:38-39

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’  But now I tell you:  Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too.

 [With these words Jesus continues to teach about the Law of Moses as the Sermon on the Mount continues.  He takes some of the most important topics and explains to his disciples, in specific terms, what it means to be “more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires” (See Day 23).

I’m really excited about this one because I have a whole new take on it.  I have always thought of this as the doormat scripture.  No matter what anyone does to you, you have to stand there and let them do it.  It has been used literally by pacifists as an excuse not to flee or protect themselves when they are under senseless attack.  It has been used by society to encourage women to stay with their abusive husbands.  It has been used by the strong to neutralize the weak when they try to come out from under authority and demand justice.

I do not think Jesus is talking to us about martyrdom in this scripture.  A true martyr is willing to die for a just cause, and that is not what’s being described here.  Instead, in keeping with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, I think he is teaching his disciples how God wants them to interpret the Law of Moses.  It is a scripture about legal theory and justice.

The first law Jesus refers to is the “a life for a life” justice described in Leviticus 24:19-20: “If anyone injures another person, whatever he has done shall be done to him.  If he breaks a bone, one of his bones shall be broken; if he puts out an eye, one of his eyes shall be put out; if he knocks out a tooth, one of his teeth shall be knocked out.”

At first glance this seems like a barbaric law.  Nowadays we don’t poke out people’s eyes or knock out their teeth in the administration of justice.  But let’s go way, way back to a more primitive time and think about what caveman justice looked like.  Imagine a caveman.  He survives by effectively using his club.  I suspect that his method of exacting justice would be the same for every crime – hit the offender over the head with your club.  So, whether someone killed your wife, stole your fish, or slapped you in the face the punishment was the same – hit the offender on the head with your club.  That’s his instinctual response to everything.   He believed in the survival of the fittest.  He believed that his survival depended on eliminating the competition and creating order in his world through use of force.  With his club. On people’s heads.

I think the “eye for an eye” law was actually somewhat enlightened.  It introduced the concept that the punishment has to fit the crime.  It institutes the concept of restitution.  The same concept is used in today’s courts.  Damages awarded by the courts are based on the value of whatever has been lost or damaged. Punishments must be related to the seriousness of the crime that was committed.  You can’t expect to get back more than you have lost.  You can’t sue for $100 if you have only lost $50.  You can’t demand that someone be killed for knocking out your tooth.  You can’t club someone over the head for stealing your fish.  You can only expect a replacement fish.

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But Jesus juxtaposes this law with another law when he brings up the issue of revenge: “Do not take revenge on anyone or continue to hate him, but love your neighbor as you love yourself.  I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18).  This law seems to contradict the first one, so the question arises – What do I do if someone slaps me?  Do I club them over the head like a caveman because that’s what my instincts tell me to do?  Do I slap them back in obedience to the “eye for an eye” law?  Or do I let it go under the “do not take revenge” law?

Jesus tells his disciples that they can be “more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires”  by giving up their legal right to restitution and refraining from taking revenge.  God wants us to let go of our legal claims and extend mercy to those who have wronged us. Do not take revenge.  Love your neighbor.  This is the law that is the more important of the two.  (The caveman approach is not even on the table).

I think it’s important that in this scripture Jesus is using an example that is a small thing.  What would Jesus have said if the crime was a big thing like murder?  We really don’t know.  What he talks about here is a slap on the cheek, a small thing.  A person who has been slapped is insulted but not really injured.  Jesus says you don’t need to slap back.  Just let it go. But what if it happens again?  So what?  No harm done, it’s just a second slap.  By the time there have been two slaps the offender’s anger will probably be diffused and it will be over.  Jesus says we don’t need to fight back.  He says rather than slapping back the better path is to stay in control of yourself, keep your anger in check, control your instinctual response, take the higher ground, let it go, and move on.  Does it mean we go to hell if we slip up and slap back?   It doesn’t say that. What I think is being described is an elevated way of interpreting the Levitical laws.

Although we don’t have cavemen in this world anymore, there are still a lot of people who believe in the survival of the fittest. Even Christians.  Many believe that competition prepares them for survival.  They believe that “might makes right”.  They believe that the future of the human race depends on their ability to slap back, harder and better.  In the Cold War we were led to believe that the country with the most bombs would win. The government told us that if there was a nuclear attack we could retreat to our fallout shelters for a month or and re-emerge as the victors, like the Londoners did in World War II.  Later on, it was discovered that if we set off even a few nuclear weapons we could unleash a nuclear winter that would destroy all life on earth.  That kind of took the fun out of it, so all of the nations decided nuclear disarmament was a better idea.  Humanity seems to be slowly learning that in the long run slapping back doesn’t always work.  It doesn’t strengthen us; it weakens us.  It hurts everyone and endangers our survival as a species.

Jesus says that true justice doesn’t exact revenge; true justice reestablishes peace.  He says the bigger man isn’t the one who slaps harder.  He says the bigger man is the one who stops the slapping cycle first and chooses to love. He tells us in this scripture that we don’t have to be cavemen wielding our clubs or bombs anymore.  He calls us to come out of the darkness of our caves and enjoy a nice walk in the light.

What does this scripture say to you?

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2 thoughts on “Day 31: Matthew 5:38-39

  1. I actually have never liked this scripture…perhaps because it has been used to create doormats. I wonder why he didn’t just say to walk away. Why do you need to let someone hit you again. I dont find anything very redeeming about that.

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