“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Matthew 5:38–39
The meaning of what a person says isn’t determined by only their words. The context in which the words are spoken, or written, has a bearing in determining the meaning and import of what is said. There are many times, however, when we take instruction we’re given out of the context it was intended to address and then apply it in another context and the result is very different.
Take the statement, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” referred to in our focus text. Three times in the writings of Moses this instruction is given, once in Exodus, once in Leviticus, and once in Deuteronomy. In Jesus’ day this instruction had been interpreted to describe an individual’s rightful response to any mistreatment or injustice he’d received from another. Basically, they believed that a person was allowed to respond or retaliate in the same way he’d been treated.
Imagine the kind of homes, workplaces, and communities we’d have if everyone applied this interpretation to the rule every time we felt we were mistreated. We’d all feel like we were living in a war zone. “My sister lied about me, I’ll lie about her. My colleague stole something from my desk, I’ll steal something from his. My neighbor was drunk and ran over my garbage can so I’ll…. You get the picture.
God’s intention was never that individual people, or even families, were ever to use the guide line, “an eye for an eye,” as a standard for their response to the actions of others. These instructions were given to judges, and community elders that would function as judges, to instruct them in how to determine what degree of punishment was appropriate for any given crime. A more modern version of this instruction is the adage, “let the punishment fit the crime.” However, I want to emphasize these instructions were given to judges and magistrates for use when they sat in judgment not for use by people in everyday living.
How did Jesus say we’re to respond to mistreatment? Don’t resist and evil person. Be patient, generous, and kind. Friends, if everyone were less concerned about protecting themselves and their rights and more interested in caring for others this world would be a much gentler and more peaceful place.
I know we live in a rough world, and having some defensive posture is sometimes just good sense, but we need to be careful that our defensiveness doesn’t become a means of maintaining or even escalating the hurt that goes on in the world. More often than not a little patience, kindness, and generosity will go a long way to making our corner of the world a better place.