“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist the one who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” - Matthew 5:38-39
There’s been a lot of striking going on lately. In Portland, OR and Kenosha, WI protestors clash with police and other protestors. Striking is happening with fists, bottles, rubber bullets, and live ammunition resulting injury and death and an ever-escalating rise in anger and violence. Emotions are running high everywhere as we witness the fighting and hostility.
From before the time of the Babylonian King Hammurabi, who had the first written form of law chiseled on a pillar (the Code of Hammurabi), the accepted response to a physical wrong was the ol’ “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” tradition. This is known as lex talionis—the law of retaliation or the law of revenge.
It was meant to reduce violence. Keep it at a “manageable” level. Rather than wipe out a neighboring village because a member of yours had some teeth knocked out by one of theirs, it was deemed only fair that the offending person from the other village had those same teeth knocked out of his. There it was. Justice.
My Old Testament Greek professor, Doug Hare – he would only allow us to call him by his first name – wrote in his commentary on the book of Matthew, “The Old Testament incorporates lex talionis. Deuteronomy 19:21 says, “Your eyes shall not pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (see also Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-20).
Over time, however, the practice was modified in Israel to allow the injured party to obtain a monetary award in lieu of inflicting injury on the guilty person—thus further civilizing the process (Hare, 55).”
With the coming of Jesus and his ministry of reconciliation, Jesus takes the idea of retaliation and retribution in an entirely new direction. Jesus tells us that we are not to resist “him who is evil.”
When it comes to evil, Jesus says that we are not to respond in kind – we are to not resist. Specifically, in matters of striking he seems to be saying that we should just stand there and take it.
And we’ve seen it work out that way. An unarmed person stands up to an armed person and by sheer courage either silently or verbally is able to dissuade the other from using their weapon.
But notice - Jesus says that if someone hits you on the right cheek, offer them your left. What’s that about?
Every culture in every time has had things that you just don’t do. They are verboten – forbidden – as our German ancestors would say. In those days, to be struck on the right cheek was more serious than to be struck on the left cheek. To be struck on the right cheek meant either that the striker was using his left hand (his toilet cleaning hand) or that he was using a right backhand, a particularly egregious insult and one that dishonored the striker more than the one being struck.
In his commentary, Richard Niell Donovan says, “…Jesus calls us to go against our natural instinct. He calls us not to try to maintain our honor by exacting revenge. He calls us to make ourselves vulnerable instead of returning blow for blow. While this might seem passive, it is instead a way of seizing the initiative to demonstrate Christian values rather than following the violent agenda set by the striker.”
Jesus’ ministry of nonviolence is not an easy path. But by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, we are enabled to do what we could never imagine.