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. (Matt. 5:38-42)The Old Testament passage on “an eye for an eye” was a teaching on justice. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught on personal responses to evil directed at you’re your personal response is different from justice.
What is the Teaching? The teaching is self-evident if we do not enter the text with questions like, “Where do we draw the line?” Since that question is not answered in the text, we will assume that there is no line. Jesus did not qualify His teaching.
The basic command is, “Do not resist an evil person.” The five examples that follow it assume that the other person is evil: he intends harm, stealing, or mischief, with evil motives—gain to him and harm or loss to you.
• “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” My father taught me to fight back, and yet he tried to keep me out of fights. In the 8th and 9th grades, I was in five serious fistfights, and another one in 11th grade. I did not know Jesus’ teaching, but if I had I would not have taken it seriously. My views of honor, pride, courage, masculinity, and peer pressure all stacked up against turning the other cheek. However, Jesus was talking about a real evil person really hitting you on the right cheek and you really turning the left cheek to him so he could hit that one, too.
• “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” Again, this is an evil person who wants to sue you. He hasn’t done it yet; he has only let you know that he intends to sue. You are to voluntarily settle out of court, give him your shirt, and throw in your coat. This is not “one of your shirts” and “one of your coats,” it is your shirt (singular) and your coat (singular).
• “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” This force is at threat of harm, sword, spear, or gunpoint. The man is an evil person. The second mile is not forced; it is a free gift to an evil person.
In these three instances, the first cheek, the first article of clothing, and the first mile are forced from you. The second cheek, the second piece of clothing, and the second mile are your gifts to the evil person.
• “Give to the one who asks you.”
• “Do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
Over the years, I have listened to many “what ifs,” regarding these last two instances, most of which are based upon thinking that the other person will not return the money. Of course he won’t; that is a given. The other person is evil. People who want to draw a line draw it where none of the teaching gets obeyed. If you must draw a line, draw it where at least some of the teaching is obeyed. Even if there are exceptions, you need to know when you will obey the command, not when you won’t.
Why does Jesus give this teaching? There is no hint as to why in the passage itself. Most of us think we have to know “why” before we obey, and then we have to agree with God’s reason.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19, there is a clue as to the reason for the teaching: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” In this sentence, there is no force involved at all. Paul is absolutely free. Paul uses his freedom to lose his freedom. He puts himself under voluntary servitude. Why? To win as many as possible. This is Paul’s method of evangelism. Paul learned this from Jesus.
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (1 Pet. 2:21-24)This teaching about Jesus comes right after Peter’s teaching on how Christian slaves should behave and right before his teaching to wives on how they should win their husbands.
Jesus’ death on the cross was forced by others but was voluntary on His part. The cross is the way of salvation. We should proclaim the Gospel in the same way as Jesus did when He went to the cross. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, that you should follow in his steps.” Paul was imitating Jesus, and he says to us in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”
Here is a reason for Jesus’ teaching to not resist an evil person. The reason is to win the evil person to Christ. Kindness leads people to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
We may not be sure this works, because there are not many examples of Christians obeying this command. We do, however, have many examples of this command not being obeyed, and we know from experience that resisting evil people does not win them to Christ. We should base our decision to obey on Jesus’ command, on His example, and on Paul’s example.