Matthew 5:38-42


Matt. 5:38-42

You have heard that it has been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you not to resist evil; but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also; and if anyone wishes to obtain judgement against you for your tunic, give him your cloak also; and if anyone impresses you into the public service to go a mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who asks you, and do not turn away from him who wishes to borrow from you.

Few passages of the New Testament have more of the essence of the Christian ethic in them than this one. Here is the characteristic ethic of the Christian life, and the conduct which should distinguish the Christian from other men.

Jesus begins by citing the oldest law in the world–an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. That law is known as the Lex Talionis, and it may be described as the law of tit for tat. It appears in the earliest known code of laws, the Code of Hammurabi, who reigned in Babylon from 2285 to 2242 B.C. The Code of Hammurabi makes a curious distinction between the gentleman and the workman. “If a man has caused the loss of a gentleman’s eye, his eye one shall cause to be lost. If he has shattered a gentleman’s limb, one shall shatter his limb. If he has caused a poor man to lose his eye, or shattered a poor man’s limb, he shall pay one mina of silver … If he has made the tooth of a man who is his equal fall out, one shall make his tooth fall out. If he has made the tooth of a poor man fall out, he shall pay one third of a mina of silver.” The principle is clear and apparently simple–if a man has inflicted an injury on any person, an equivalent injury shall be inflicted upon him.

That law became part and parcel of the ethic of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament we find it laid down no fewer than three times. “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exo.21:23-25). “When a man causes a disfigurement in his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured” (Lev.24:19-20). “Your eye shall not pity; it shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deut.19:21). These laws are often quoted as amongst the blood thirsty, savage and merciless laws of the Old Testament; but before we begin to criticise certain things must be noted.

(i) The Lex Talionis, the law of tit for tat, so far from being a savage and bloodthirsty law, is in fact the beginning of mercy. Its original aim was definitely the limitation of vengeance. In the very earliest days the vendetta and the blood feud were characteristic of tribal society. If a man of one tribe injured a man of another tribe, then at once all the members of the tribe of the injured man were out to take vengeance on all the members of the tribe of the man who committed the injury; and the vengeance desired was nothing less than death. This law deliberately limits vengeance. It lays it down that only the man who committed the injury must be punished, and his punishment must be no more than the equivalent of the injury he has inflicted and the damage he has done. Seen against its historical setting this is not a savage law, but a law of mercy.

(ii) Further, this was never a law which gave a private individual the right to extract vengeance; it was always a law which laid down how a judge in the law court must assess punishment and penalty (compare Deut.19:18). This law was never intended to give the individual person the right to indulge even in the vengeance of tit for tat. It was always intended as a guide for a judge in the assessment of the penalty which any violent or unjust deed must receive.

(iii) Still further, this law was never, at least in any even semi-civilized society, carried out literally. The Jewish jurists argued rightly that to carry it out literally might in fact be the reverse of justice, because it obviously might involve the displacement of a good eye or a good tooth for a bad eye or a bad tooth. And very soon the injury done was assessed at a money value; and the Jewish law in the tractate Baba Kamma carefully lays down how the damage is to be assessed. If a man has injured another, he is liable on five counts–for injury, for pain, for healing, for loss of time, for indignity suffered. In regard to injury, the injured man is looked on as a slave to be sold in the market place. His value before and after the injury was assessed, and the man responsible for the injury had to pay the difference. He was responsible for the loss in value of the man injured. In regard to pain, it was estimated how much money a man would accept to be willing to undergo the pain of the injury inflicted, and the man responsible for the injury had to pay that sum. In regard to healing, the injurer had to pay all the expenses of the necessary medical attention, until a complete cure had been effected. In regard to loss of time, the injurer had to pay compensation for the wages lost while the injured man was unable to work, and he had also to pay compensation if the injured man had held a well paid position, and was now, in consequence of the injury, fit for less well rewarded work. In regard to indignity, the injurer had to pay damages for the humiliation and indignity which the injury had inflicted. In actual practice the type of compensation which the Lex Talionis laid down is strangely modern.

(iv) And most important of all, it must be remembered that the Lex Talionis is by no means the whole of Old Testament ethics. There are glimpses and even splendours of mercy in the Old Testament. “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people” (Lev.19:18). “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (Prov.25:21). “Do not say, I will do to him as he has done to me” (Prov.24:29). “Let him give his cheek to the smiter; he be filled with insults” (Lam.3:30). There is abundant mercy in the Old Testament too.

So, then, ancient ethics were based on the law of tit for tat. It is true that that law was a law of mercy; it is true that it was a law for a judge and not for a private individual; it is true that it was never literally carried out; it is true that there were accents of mercy speaking at the same time. But Jesus obliterated the very principle of that law, because retaliation, however controlled and restricted, has no place in the Christian life.


Matt. 5:38-42 (continued)

So, then, for the Christian Jesus abolishes the old law of limited vengeance and introduces the new spirit of non-resentment and of non-retaliation. He goes on to take three examples of the Christian spirit in operation. To take these examples with a crude and ununderstanding literalism is completely to miss their point. It is therefore very necessary to understand what Jesus is saying.

(i) He says that if anyone smites us on the right cheek we must turn to him the other cheek also. There is far more here than meets the eye, far more than a mere matter of blows on the face.

Suppose a right-handed man is standing in front of another man, and suppose he wants to slap the other man on the right cheek, how must he do it? Unless he goes through the most complicated contortions, and unless he empties the blow of all force, he can hit the other man’s cheek only in one way–with the back of his hand. Now according to Jewish Rabbinic law to hit a man with the back of the hand was twice as insulting as to hit him with the back of the hand. So, then, what Jesus is saying is this: “Even if a man should direct at you the most deadly and calculated insult, you must on no account retaliate, and you must on no account resent it.”

It will not happen very often, if at all, that anyone will slap us on the face, but time and time again life brings to us insults either great or small; and Jesus is here saying that the true Christian has learned to resent no insult and to seek retaliation for no slight. Jesus himself was called a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber. He was called the friend of taxgatherers and harlots, with the implication that he was like the company he kept. The early Christians were called cannibals and incendiaries, and were accused of immorality, gross and shameless, because their service included the Love Feast. When Shaftesbury undertook the cause of the poor and the oppressed he was warned that it would mean that “he would become unpopular with his friends and people of his own class,” and that “he would have to give up all hope of ever being a cabinet minister.” When Wilberforce began on his crusade to free the slaves slanderous rumours that he was a cruel husband, a wife-beater, that he was married to a negress were deliberately spread abroad.

Time and time again in a church someone is “insulted” because he is not invited to a platform party, because he is omitted from a vote of thanks, because in some way he does not get the place due to him. The true Christian has forgotten what it is to be insulted; he has learned from his Master to accept any insult and never to resent it, and never to seek to retaliate:

(ii) Jesus goes on to say that if anyone tries to take away our tunic in a law suit, we must not only let him have that, but must offer him our cloak also. Again there is much more than meets the eye.

The tunic, chiton (GSN5509), was the long, sack-line inner garment made of cotton or of linen. The poorest man would have a change of tunics. The cloak was the great, blanket-like outer garment which a man wore as a robe by day, and used as a blanket at night. Of such garments the Jew would have only one. Now it was actually the Jewish law that a man’s tunic might be taken as a pledge, but not his cloak. “If ever you take your neighbours garment in pledge (his cloak), you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; for that is his only covering, it is his mantle for his body; in what else shall he sleep?” (Exo.22:26-27). The point is that by right a man’s cloak could not be taken permanently from him.

So, then, what Jesus is saying is this: “The Christian never stands upon his rights; he never disputes about his legal rights; he does not consider himself to have any legal rights at all.” There are people who are for ever standing on their rights, who clutch their privileges to them and who will not be pried loose from them, who will militantly go to law rather than suffer what they regard as the slightest infringement of them. Churches are tragically full of people like that, officials whose territory has been invaded, office-bearers who have not been accorded their proper place, courts which do business with a manual of practice and procedure on the table all the time, lest anyone’s rights should be invaded. People like that have not even begun to see what Christianity is. The Christian thinks not of his rights, but of his duties; not of his privileges, but of his responsibilities. The Christian is a man who has forgotten that he has any rights at all; and the man who will fight to the legal death for his rights, inside or outside the Church, is far from the Christian way.

(iii) Jesus then goes on to speak of being compelled to go one mile; and says that in such a case the Christian must willingly go two miles.

There is here a picture of which we know little, for it is a picture from an occupied country. The word used for to compel is the verb aggareuein (GSN0029), and aggareuein is a word with a history. It comes from the noun aggareus, which is a Persian word meaning a courier. The Persians had an amazing postal system. Each road was divided into stages lasting one day. At each stage there was food for the courier and water and fodder for tile horses, and fresh horses for the road. But, if by any chance there was anything lacking, any private person could be impressed, compelled into giving food, lodging, horses, assistance, and even into carrying the message himself for a stage. The word for such compulsion was aggareuein (GSN0029).

In the end the word came to signify any kind of forced impressment into the service of the occupying power. In an occupied country citizens could be compelled to supply food, to provide billets, to carry baggage. Sometimes the occupying power exercised this right of compulsion in the most tyrannical and unsympathetic way. Always this threat of compulsion hung over the citizens. Palestine was an occupied country. At any moment a Jew might feel the touch of the flat of a Roman spear on his shoulder, and know that he was compelled to serve the Romans, it might be in the most menial way. That, in fact, is what happened to Simon of Cyrene, when he was compelled (aggareuein, GSN0029) to bear the Cross of Jesus.

So, then, what Jesus is saying is: “Suppose your masters come to you and compel you to be a guide or a porter for a mile. don’t do a mile with bitter and obvious resentment; go two miles with cheerfulness and with a good grace.” What Jesus is saying is: “Don’t be always thinking of your liberty to do as you like, be always thinking of your duty and your privilege to be of service to others. When a task is laid on you, even if the task is unreasonable and hateful, don’t do it as a grim duty to be resented; do it as a service to be gladly rendered.”

There are always two ways of doing things. A man can do the irreducible minimum and not a stroke more; he can do it in such a way as to make it clear that he hates the whole thing; he can do it with the barest minimum of efficiency and no more; or he can do it with a smile, with a gracious courtesy, with a determination, not only to do this thing, but to do it well and graciously. He can do it, not simply as well as he has to, but far better than anyone has any right to expect him to. The inefficient workman, the resentful servant, the ungracious helper have not even begun to have the right idea of the Christian life. The Christian is not concerned to do as he likes; he is concerned only to help, even when the demand for help is discourteous, unreasonable and tyrannical.

So, then, in this passage, under the guise of vivid eastern pictures Jesus is laying down three great rules–the Christian will never resent or seek retaliation for any insult, however calculated and however deadly; the Christian will never stand upon his legal rights or on any other rights he may believe himself to possess; the Christian will never think of his right to do as he likes, but always of his duty to be of help. The question is: How do we measure up to that?


Matt. 5:38-42 (continued)

Finally, it is Jesus’ demand that we should give to all who ask and never turn away from him who wishes to borrow. At its highest the Jewish law of giving was a lovely thing. It was based on Deut.15:7-11:

“If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, `The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you. You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.”

The point about the seventh year is that in every seventh year there was a cancellation of debts; and the grudging and the calculating man might refuse to lend anything when the seventh year was near, lest the debt be cancelled and he lose what he had given.

It was on that passage that the Jewish law of giving was founded. The Rabbis laid down five principles which ought to govern giving.

(i) Giving must not be refused. “Be careful not to refuse charity, for everyone who refuses charity is put in the same category with idolators.” If a man refuses to give, the day may well come when he has to beg–perhaps from the very people to whom he refused to give.

(ii) Giving must befit the man to whom the gift is given. The law of Deuteronomy had said that a man must be given whatever he lacks. That is to say, a man must not be given that bare sufficiency which will keep body and soul together; he must be given enough to enable him to retain at least something of the standard and the comfort which once he knew. So, it is said, Hillel arranged that the poverty-stricken son of a noble family should be given, not simply enough to keep him from starvation, but a horse to ride and a slave to run before him; and once, when no slave was available, Hillel himself acted as his slave and ran before him. There is something gracious and lovely in the idea that giving must not only remove actual poverty; it must do something also to remove the humiliation which poverty brings.

(iii) Giving must be carried out privately and secretly. There must be no one else there. In fact, the Rabbis went the length of saying that in the highest kind of giving, the giver must not know to whom he was giving, and the receiver must not know from whom he was receiving. There was a certain place in the Temple to which people secretly came and gave their gifts; and these secret gifts were used in secrecy to help the impoverished members of once noble families, and to give the daughters of such impoverished ones the dowries without which they could not be married. The Jew would have regarded with abhorrence the gift which was given for the sake of prestige, publicity, or self-glorification.

(iv) The manner of giving must befit the character and the temperament of the recipient. The rule was that if a man had means, but was too miserly to use them, a gift must be given as a gift, but afterwards reclaimed from his estate as a loan. But if a man was too proud to ask for help, Rabbi lshmael suggested that the giver should go to him and say, “My son, perhaps you need a loan.” His self-respect was thus saved, but the loan was never to be asked back, and it was in fact, not a loan, but a gift. It was even laid down that if a man was unable to respond to an appeal for help, his very refusal must be such as to show that, if he could give nothing else, he at least gave sympathy. Even a refusal was to be such that it helped and did not hurt. Giving was to be carried out in such a way that the manner of the giving was to help as much as the gift.

(v) Giving was at once a privilege and an obligation for in reality all giving is nothing less than giving to God. To give to some needy person was not something which a man might choose to do; it was something he must do; for, if he refused, the refusal was to God. “He who befriends the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his good deed.” “To every one who shows mercy to other men, mercy is shown from heaven; but to him who shows no mercy to other men, no mercy is shown from heaven.” The Rabbis loved to point out that loving-kindness was one of the very few things to which the Law appointed no limit at all.

Are we then to say that Jesus urged upon men what can only be called indiscriminate giving? The answer cannot be given without qualification. It is clear that the effect of the giving on the receiver must be taken into account. Giving must never be such as to encourage him in laziness and in shiftlessness, for such giving can only hurt. But at the same time it must be remembered that many people who say that they will give only through official channels, and who refuse to help personal cases, are frequently merely producing an excuse for not giving at all, and are removing the personal element from giving altogether. And it must also be remembered that it is better to help a score of fraudulent beggars than to risk turning away the one man in real need.


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