This is one of the passages of scripture that is misunderstood, and often used to preach pacifism. Some people even have used this passage to teach lawlessness, to instruct on anti-capital punishments. Did Jesus introduce a new law? Should we set aside the law given in the Old Testament? If someone commits a crime against me, should I say ‘It’s alright, I forgive you’ and let him loose? If someone breaks into my house and tries to steal my stuff or kidnap one of my children, should I say ‘It’s alright brother, take what you want’. Is that what this passage is saying? Or do we uphold the law and punish the criminal?
God’s moral law is written in everyone’s hearts (Rom 2:12-16). In the heart of every man who has been made in the image of God, has a sense of justice. But in the fall, that sense of justice became perverted into a retaliatory, vengeful spirit. We want to get even, we want to fight for our rights.
The Law of Retaliation
When God made a covenant with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, he gave them moral laws, summarized in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. From chapter 21 to 23 God gave them the civil law that must be administered within the framework of duly constituted court system. And, God instituted judges and magistrates and authorities to take care of civil matters.
In the Old Testament, the phrase ‘life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ is found in three places: Exodus 21:24, Deuteronomy 19:21 and Leviticus 24:20. All these refer to duly established court systems. The judge will determine the just recourse for the damage. This is not a matter of personal vengeance.
‘An eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth’ means ‘Equal Justice’ – the punishment must fit the severity of the crime; no less and no more (Lex talionis). God has established this law to punish the sin and to maintain the standard of justice. (Usually, the victim receives the value of the injury in compensation). God has put the boundaries on justice to refrain the vengeance of the evil heart of man who seeks to go beyond its boundaries.
The perversion of Mosaic Law
When Jesus said “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” he was referring to a rabbinical tradition. Behind that tradition there is actually a real Old Testament law. Pharisees and Scribes have perverted the intent of Mosaic law and messed up the interpretation, as they so often did with the Old Testament. They have used it as a license for vengeance. They took Lex talionis out of the law courts and used it as a basis to operate in their personal relationships. It had become a sort of a biblical permission to strike back and get even. Jesus was addressing the hypocrisy of Pharisees and Scribes who made a form of their own religion who believed they attained righteousness by legalism.
Justice must be operated on an eye to eye and a tooth for a tooth basis. It is for the law court and not to be taken into personal hands for vengeance. Court and personal relationships are two distinct categories that operate differently. The court is to administer justice and not to show pity on the law breaker (Deut. 19:21). On the other hand, human relationships must be operated on the basis of love and forgiveness. You cannot switch these two principles. Every time an offender murders or rapes someone if the court pardons him and lets him go, the society would be in utter chaos. And, if someone does something wrong to you, you won’t break into his house and shoot him. Forgive him and then let the law do exactly what God gave the law to do. What the Pharisees did was that they took a divine principle for the courts, and they made it a matter of daily vendettas. This is precisely the issue that Jesus addresses here in this passage.
Defiance, Not submission
In this passage or anywhere else in the scripture Jesus never said to get rid of the law. And, He is not saying to be defenseless and let the evildoers run over you. How could Jesus, the source of love, truth and justice, tell us to sit back and welcome violence, lies and injustice? Where does the legal recourse come from? The accurate translation of the term ‘Do not resist’ in the context is ‘do not retaliate against violence with violence‘ or ‘don’t try to get even with evildoers‘ (Walter Wink, Professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary).
Mistranslation of this term has created a theological contradiction, but when it is correctly understood, it harmonizes with other New Testament passages: “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” (1 Thess. 5:15); “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Pet. 3:9); “Bless those who persecute you. Bless them, do not curse them. Do not pay anyone back with evil for evil…. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everyone. Beloved, do not take revenge, but leave that to the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:14, 17-19); or, as Jesus commanded, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44).
In this passage, Jesus addresses FOUR areas of personal rights Jews fought for:
Dignity (v39) – If anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also
Security (40) – If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak also
Liberty (41) – If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him for two miles
Property (42) – Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away those who want to borrow.
The Law has not changed
Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. He said, as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law (Mat 5:18). The Bible upholds law and order, and it is an essential part of society. Government and authorities are ordained by God, and judges and rulers of the laws are His agents. The law is not meant for a righteous person, but for the lawless, rebellious, murderers, homosexuals, liars, perjurers (1 Timothy 1:9-10). God gave law to restrain evil, to protect righteous men against evil men, to protect weak against the strong, the powerful from the violent.
Our response to evil does have to be resistance–it is morally wrong to tolerate evil. However, we also must continue to show love for the evildoer. Loving our enemy or praying for them does not prevent us from defending oneself from life threatening danger. We are morally obligated to preserve life. In Romans 12:9, for example, Paul says that one should “hate what is evil,” and in James 4:7 we read that we are to “resist the devil.” It is clear from passages in Luke 22 that Jesus’ disciples were armed (Luke 22:38, 49) and Jesus himself advised them to buy swords for their protection (Luke 22:36).
Not to restrain evil, not to have punishments, not to have legal recourse is to allow evil to run rampant. Today our society is overwhelmed with violence and crimes because we have ignored God’s holy law and His character. We would do well to re-examine the intent of the Old testament law, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ We should make things right by upholding the law and maintaining the righteous standard of God, so that He would be glorified.
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