Matthew 5:38-42 (NIV): “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
The “lex talionis”, the “law of retaliation” (“an eye for an eye,” etc.) was not originally meant as a standard for righteous revenge, but as a limit – a method of stopping the escalation of retaliation in its tracks. Sin-twisted human nature is such that it instinctively ups the ante. If someone mistreats a person emotionally, it is very easy for them to mistreat back physically if they have the chance. A slap in the face is magnified in return to beating the other person up. A beating is retaliated against by deadly force, which is returned with interest onto the heads of family members, and on it goes. We can see this same dynamic at work today, all over the world. Some who use this kind of escalation see it as protecting honor, or as “not letting them get away with” whatever harm the other person has caused, but once the words are swept out of the way, it is simply sin-twisted human nature focusing by instinct on oneself.
As I said, God put the lex talionis in place to limit this retaliation. If a tooth is knocked out, a tooth can be knocked out in return – ONLY ONE; and then the whole matter must stop. If a hand is lost, a hand can be taken in return – ONLY ONE; and then the whole matter must stop. By the way, this is not righteousness to take revenge in this limited manner; it is a temporary concession to the sinful self-centeredness of the hearts of mankind. It was purely designed to keep God’s people from dividing and destroying themselves by revenge. To limit yourself to only this kind of revenge merely keeps you above the level of the animal – nothing more.
But with the advent of the kingdom of God, whole new possibilities opened up. Out of hearts that are reshaped and remade by the Holy Spirit, it is possible for God’s people to actually love their enemies, and to never start any retaliation at all. A slap in the face, instead of being retaliated against by an equal slap, can just be absorbed, and love returned in its place. This is the truly righteous response – not an equal pushback, but a completely unequal one in the opposite direction; not equal harm, but abundantly unequal good! If someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, there is no retaliation by looking to take something of his in return, but a wholehearted attitude of generosity that gives more than is asked. (And not out of a motive of trying to shame the other person, but out of a heart of love.) If someone (a Roman soldier was in Jesus’ mind in this illustration) uses their official capacity to force you to carry his equipment for a mile, there is no looking for an opportunity to get back at them and even the score, but a generous giving of even more than they demand.
These actions, returning good for evil, not seeking revenge, but instead pouring out love and care for those how mistreat you, stop the spread of hate, revenge, and evil in its tracks. They push back the darkness, replacing it with the love and light of the kingdom of God. But such a counter-intuitive response cannot be forced from a sin-darkened heart. This is not some ideal to be strived for by people who want to be “nicer” or more righteous. It is the NATURAL response of a reshaped heart – the instinctive response of a human nature that has been remade and reshaped by the power of the Holy Spirit. People who live in continual and powerful relationship with God will instinctively respond in these ways, in ways that pull the fangs of evil and that replace darkness with light, with no thought, and with no hesitation; it just flows from them naturally.
To those who are worried that these responses will make them a target, or that their honor will be sacrificed, I say: Perhaps. But if a person belongs to God, those things are not to be their concerns. It is not our own honor that we should be concerned with, but God’s. It is not the preservation of our money or our “stuff” that is to be our focus, but the spread of God’s kingdom. And if we give ourselves entirely into God’s hands, all of these most important things will be accomplished through our loving response to any evil that is done to us.
Father, I can see that the real challenge is not to respond properly to evil that is done to us, but to stay in such close connection with You that the right response naturally flows from within us. Lord, help us to do just that. Help us to cling to You, to hold closely to You, to stay in such intimate contact with You that Your heart beats in our own spirits, and that our every action is a clear and accurate reflection of Your loving actions toward us, of Your giving Yourself for us even while we were still sinners. Amen.