Exposition of Matthew 5: 38-42

Mat 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’
Mat 5:39 “But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Mat 5:40 “And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.
Mat 5:41 “And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two.
Mat 5:42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

Many times you have heard verse one, “eye for eye, and tooth for a tooth,” misinterpreted by clergy, friends or acquaintances. Perhaps, Yahshua was addressing that very issue here. In the Torah we find many qualifying passages that will reveal to you that it is the acts of revenge that G-d is limiting here; the natural human impulse to exact the maximum penalty for some wrong committed against them. Let me state that “eye for eye, and tooth for a tooth,” is a principle or concept that teaches us that retribution and punishment must be commensurate with the crime or wrong committed.

Turn with me to Exodus 21:24. I’m reading from the Living Bible.

24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 burn for burn, cut for cut, and bruise for bruise.

Note this is the preamble but see how it is qualified:

26 If you hit one of your slaves and cause the loss of an eye, the slave must be set free. 27 The same law applies if you knock out a slave’s tooth—the slave goes free.
28 A bull that kills someone with its horns must be killed and its meat destroyed, but the owner of the bull isn’t responsible for the death.
29 Suppose you own a bull that has been in the habit of attacking people, but you have refused to keep it fenced in. If that bull kills someone, both you and the bull must be put to death by stoning.
30 However, you may save your own life by paying whatever fine is demanded.
31 This same law applies if the bull gores someone’s son or daughter.
32 If the bull kills a slave, you must pay the slave owner thirty pieces of silver for the loss of the slave, and the bull must be killed by stoning.
33 Suppose someone’s ox or donkey is killed by falling into an open pit that you dug or left uncovered on your property.
34 You must pay for the dead animal, and it becomes yours.
35 If your bull kills someone else’s, yours must be sold. Then the money from your bull and the meat from the dead bull must be divided equally between you and the other owner.
36 If you refuse to fence in a bull that is known to attack others, you must pay for any animal it kills, but the dead animal will belong to you. (Contemporary English bible)

You can see by the qualifying verses that the concept advanced here is that of punishment commensurate with the wrong committed.

You will also notice from this brief exercise that all of the situations covered have companion law in our own judicial system. In fact our civil and criminal tort system is based upon biblical law.

Now let’s see how the rabbis viewed this verse.

In Bava Kama 8:1 from the Mishna which was compiled from existing law by Judah Ha-Nasi in 200-220 CE we have the rabbis thinking on the subject:

“If someone wounds his fellow, he becomes liable to compensate the injured party for five different aspects of the injury: damage, pain, healing, loss of time from work, and insult.
“In the case of damage, here is an example of how restitution is determined. Suppose someone blinded someone else’s eye, cut off his hand or broke his leg. They value the injured person as if he were a slave for sale in the market, and they appraise his value before the injury and now.
“Here is an example of determining the compensation for pain. Suppose someone burns another with a skewer or nail, even if only on his fingernail, where it doesn’t actually produce a wound. They determine how much a man of his position would be willing to be paid to suffer that amount of pain.
“For healing the indemnity is determined in this way. If someone hit another person, he must pay all the expenses of healing him. If he develops ulcers, then if they come about in consequence of the blow, he is liable; but if not, he is not liable. If the wound heals, reopens, heals and reopens again, he is liable for all the expenses. But once it has healed thoroughly, he does not remain liable to pay the expenses of healing him.
“The value of time lost is estimated in this way. They consider what he would earn if he were a watchman over a cucumber field [a job requiring no special skills], for he has already been paid for the loss of his hand or foot. [In practice, this means they determine what kind of work he will be fit for when he fully recovers and evaluate the time lost by this standard.]
“For insult the compensation is determined entirely in accordance with the social status of both the one who caused the indignity and the one who suffered it. If someone insults a person who is naked, blind or asleep, he is liable. But if a sleeping person causes an insult, he is not liable. Someone who falls from a roof and causes injury and insult at the same time is liable for the injury but not for the insult, … because one should not be held responsible for an indignity one did not intend to cause.” (Bava Kama 8:1)

In conclusion let me say that to literally interpret this phrase “eye for eye and tooth for a tooth” is to turn this phrase into a legalistic perversion of the command as a matter of right and duty as something to be insisted upon than as a matter of restraint. Something we are still guilty of today.

The next verse “do not resist him who is evil,” is the most misunderstood verse in the B’rit Chadasha. “Resist not evil and turn the other cheek.” To understand these citations we have to understand that the Sermon on the Mount must not be understood as a code of ethics or a replacement for the Torah.

Firstly, what we must understand is that it is a matter of emphasizing the spirit of the law.

Secondly, these teachings are never to be applied mechanically or as a kind of rule of thumb.

Thirdly, if our interpretation ever makes the teaching appear ridiculous it is a blatantly wrong interpretation.

Fourthly, if the teaching appears to be impossible it is also wrong because nothing Yahshua taught is ever impossible.

And lastly, if our interpretation of any one of these things contradicts the plain and obvious truth of any other portion of scripture then our interpretation is wrong.

Think how patently ridiculous it would be if we followed the literal understanding of this verse and “did not resist evil.” Tolstoy a man of high intelligence and a great writer, who interpreted this verse this way, said to have policemen, courts, magistrates and soldiers was unchristian. Evil, he maintained is not to be resisted. There should be no punishment for crime. Would you like to live in a world like that? But that is the extent to which even famous Christian leaders have carried this verse.

When we examine these verses we need to take the Sermon on the Mount in the order in which it was preached. First, we read the Beatitudes, and then we advance with those definitions before we can see the relevance of the latter. In the Beatitudes we have a description of a believer. One who is “poor in spirit,” a person realizing how steeped in sin they had been and their own inability to confront sin without the Spirit. They mourn because they are sinners and their utter helplessness before sin without G-d. They are meek for they have a spirit in them that is the very antithesis of the spirit of the world. They hunger and thirst after righteousness.

In the first verse we are given the injunction to exercise commensurate justice according to the wrong committed. A law that restrains and holds men back from their natural inclination to sin and to take by force whatever they desire. It is a law that preserves order and restrains excesses. An eye for and eye and tooth for tooth is a law of justice and equity. How can that be if we are not to resist evil?

Take note, Yahshua is verse 39 is speaking to the believer of the beatitudes and not to the natural man. This verse concerns the relationship of the believer with other believers, but it in no way warrants excusing evil, for if it did we would have a contradiction in Scripture. Let us go to other scriptures that detail how we are to confront evil among believers. In Matthew 8:15 –17 we read:

Mat 18:15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
Mat 18:16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
Mat 18:17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the assembly: but if he neglect to hear the assembly, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.

And also in 1 Tim 5:19 concerning leaders of the assembly:
1 Tim 5:19 Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.
1 Tim 5:20 Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also may be fearful of sinning.

When we consult the whole of scripture we gain understanding and see that we are to confront evil among believers in a prescribed manner. First individually, then with witnesses, and lastly before the whole community and if the perpetrator does not repent we are to excommunicate him/her. This verse primarily addresses our relationship to believers. In either case, believer or unbeliever, we have a right to defend ourselves against acts of evil as is clearly outlined in Scripture. So what does it mean to “turn the other cheek,” part “b” in verse 39? Character assignation and criticism comes from both believers and unbelievers. Yahshua is telling us to rid ourselves of the spirit of retaliation in these incidences, however it does not mean we cannot defend our families or ourselves when the circumstances warrant such action. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the L-rd.” What the phrase “turn the other cheek” means is that we should not be concerned about personal insults and injuries that provoke us to defend our self-esteem, Sha’ul said, With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment; yea I judge not mine own self.” Sha’ul like Yahshua has become indifferent to personal criticism, insult and abuse, and to anything that men might do to him. This is what Yahshua is teaching here.

Believers are to treat differently other believers in order to give them a chance to repent. We extend unto them grace, until that grace is rejected. What is being taught here is a man’s attitude toward himself. We are being asked to face circumstances that challenge our life as believers, and our relationship to other believers as well as non-believers. The next verse 42 is key to that understanding.

Mat 5:42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

Before we examine more of the concept and principle behind Yahshua’s teachings we need to examine the particulars of verses 40 and 41:

Mat 5:40 “And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.

In this illustration the particular is derived from the principle. That is the tendency of men to always demand and insist upon their legal rights. Under Jewish Law a man could not be sued for his outer garment, but Yahshua is saying here that in regardless of your legal rights under the law, if you are sued for your inner garment, which was legal give him your outer one too. Yahshua is illustrating to us that we are all too often talking about our rights, but rarely about our duties. This is the world spirit. Are we not to help our fellow man, provide for the homeless, widowed, poor, and orphans? When we insist only on our rights our duty to our fellow man falls by the way side.

Mat 5:41 “And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two.”

In this verse we need to understand that during this period Roman soldiers as was their right, frequently commanded a Jew to carry their baggage for a mile. Jews naturally resented this law. The principle taught here is not only are we to do what is expected though it might be an unpopular law, but not contrary to Scripture, we are to go beyond it in the spirit of G-d’s Torah. We are not to strive to get out of obligations, even those pressed upon us by government. In 1 Peter 2 it reads, “Servants be subject to your masters.” When we do things in a spirit of willingness, our spirit will influence those around us. Instead of hearing how grudgingly or reluctantly believers carry out their obligations we engender a new spirit that glorifies G-d, and we take away the opportunity for unbelievers to belittle G-d’s name.

We have to ask ourselves what have these two verses to do with “borrowing” found in verse 42? What has this verse to do with fighting and killing? How does this all fit in?

Yahshua is concerned about this question of “self.” What he is saying is that if we are to be true believers we are to become dead to self. Our own self-interest. How we think about ourselves will determine how we react to others.

It is a spiritual teaching that demands we look first to ourselves and how we think of ourselves. I must be right in my attitude of self when the spirit of self-defense arises because of a wrong done to me. I must also deal with my desire of revenge and the spirit of retaliation that is characteristic of the natural man, and the attitude of self toward injustices fostered by the state or community I live in. And finally there is the attitude of self toward personal possessions.

Yahshua is exposing that atrocious thing, self-interest, found in all of us that are in opposition to the Spirit of G-d. Self that glorifies himself and opposes G-d. This is the terrible legacy that has come down to us from the fall of man. Natural man protects this self all along and in every way. But he does it not only when attacked or when something is taken away from him; he does it also in the matter of possessions, even intellectual possessions. If someone wants to borrow from him his instinct is, “Why, should I impoverish myself and part with my goods? “ It is self the whole time, but also nothing here demands that we should give to or lend to frauds, drunkards, professional beggars or anyone else that does not respect property or human decency. What Yahshua is saying is that we are not to withhold help from any one in need because of selfishness or self-centeredness. If I am in a position to do so, and a person is in need, it is my duty to provide help both materially and spiritually. In 1 John chapter 3 we read verses 17,18: “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of G-d in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.”

There is no contradiction with these verses when we understand their intent. Yahshua is saying to us: “If any man would be My disciple, let him deny himself, and take up the execution stake. And follow Me.”