5.38 Ēkousate hoti errethē: ophthalmon anti opthalmou kai odonta anti odantos. 5.39 egō de legō humīn mē antistēnai tōi ponērōi; all’hostis se rhapizei eis tēn dexian siagona [sou], strepson autōi kai tēn allēn; 5.40 kai tōi thelonti soi krithēnai kai ton chritōna sou labein, aphes autōi kai to himation; 5.41 kai hostis se aggareusei milion hen, hupage met’autou duo. 5.42 tōi aitounti se dos, kai ton thelonta apo sou daneisasthai mē apostraphēs.
5.38 You heard that it was said: eye in place of eye and tooth in place of tooth. 5.39 But I tell you not to oppose evil; rather, if someone were to strike you on your right cheek, you should turn to him also the other; 5.40 and to the one wishing to judge you and take your tunic, allow him also [to take] your outer garment; 5.41 and whoever compels you to serve one mile, go away with him two; 5.42 to the one asking you, give, and the one wanting to borrow from you, do not turn away.
In 5:38, the repeated phrase is accusative + pronoun [in place of/instead of] + genitive. No stated verb is provided, but I guess the accusative works as an assumed direct object to “give” or “take”, e.g. “take a tooth for a tooth” or “give an eye for an eye”. This is called lex talionis, the law of retribution. The Old Testament law was a great improvement on the codes of the ancients. Thieves, debtors, murderers and neighbors had much to fear under Hammurabi. The penalty was often much more severe than the act that was being judged.
The point of lex talionis was that the penalty should not be more than the injury. You shouldn’t kill someone because your eye was lost, etc. But with time, people had lost sight of this. It was never intended to require maximum allowable penalty. But when bitterness is involved between neighbors or even opponents, seeking “justice” is all about the upper hand, “making them pay,” as the expression goes. Jesus didn’t want his followers to be like this. He wanted them to show concern and compassion, even for those who were treating them unjustly. That is a world-view different from the people he was teaching. But it was right in line with what God had always taught in his word.
In 5:39 the word antistēnai is in the infinitive before the negative mē, “I tell you to not resist…”
The pair rhapizei/strepson form a simple conditional or a future most vivid (using the pronoun hostis in place of a relative pronoun, and both condition and result in future indicative tenses). I think. But I can’t be absolutely sure. Anybody have any thoughts here? There appears to be some scholarly saber-rattling about whether the future most vivid is anything more than a simple conditional. In any case, the implication is, “if someone shall strike you on the cheek, turn the other cheek.”
I’ve heard people say that there is something involved there with this strike being the back of the hand, but I don’t know the veracity or worthiness of the argument. I guess it assumes that if someone takes their right hand and strikes you on the right cheek they did it with the backhand. Then the turning the other cheek would be taking the palm of the right hand against the left cheek. Why would that matter? What would be the significance or specially revealing thing about that?
5:40 really hits at the injustice that Jesus tells them not to oppose. Even the Old Testament law required fair, but at the same time compassionate, sentencing. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge of repayment, you must return it by nightfall. Your neighbor will need it to stay warm during the night. If you do not return it and your neighbor cries out to me for help, then I will hear, for I am very merciful (Exodus 22:26-27). Also in Deuteronomy the command is repeated:
“If you lend anything to your neighbor, do not enter your neighbor’s house to claim the security. Stand outside and the owner will bring it out to you. If your neighbor is poor and has only a cloak to give as security, do not keep the cloak overnight. Return the cloak to its owner by sunset so your neighbor can sleep in it and bless you. And the Lord your God will count it as a righteous act. “Never take advantage of poor laborers, whether fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they might cry out to the Lord against you, and it would be counted against you as sin.
In a sense, the worker or indebted person had a “right” to claim that they were being treated unjustly. Jesus calls his listeners to go beyond complaint, beyond self-interest. The law of lex talionis may have stated that there was to be no egregious punishment. But to demand fair treatment was not the point. The command was to educate and instruct the judges, not provide firepower to “victims” constantly looking for an excuse, someone to blame, someone to cast their pain and suffering on. Better to let God hear our cries and let him judge than to sit in bitterness about injustice, no matter how “justified”.
In 5:41 Jesus shares that we should be servants, even when we know that we are being treated unjustly. The fact that we are treated unfairly or taken advantage of, whether by a neighbor or an oppressive imperialistic nation (with much better training and manpower), is not an excuse for petty tirades. Let God see you acting as if you were serving him directly. That was what Paul commanded, that we ought do everything with the understanding that we do it for God himself. With that mentality, we can serve, even toil, and find joy in the fact that God sees and our reward is in heaven.
And he regroups by sharing with his hearers that they should give freely, sharing with all who have needs and ask of us. That really hits our culture, I think. How many bible studies and life groups have you been at where someone asks, “But what if they take advantage of me? I just don’t think it’s wise…” How many of us take advantage of God’s perfect gift, asked for honestly, but often misused? Does God feel abused by our lack of faith, our inability to see the worth of his gift? No, God knew going into it that we did not deserve it. And we ought to give because God has given to us, not because the receiver is special, worthwhile, a good investment, or a wise steward. That doesn’t require us to be foolish. That just means that we should not seek out excuses to avoid being generous. We should not purposefully avoid helping out those in need. Better, we might seek out opportunities to meet other’s needs.
Overall, I see in these verses Jesus reacting to a people whose hearts are calloused. He wants them to be open and ready for service. The impediments of bitterness and self pity are to be rejected, so that God can fill us with compassion for all those around us in need. We cannot justify our behavior as “victims.” Jesus did not reject the cross because it was unjust. Rather, he recognized the injustice and shame as a worthwhile cost on the path to redeeming a lost world.