Matthew 5:38-42, the other cheek and the extra mile
5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’(Matt 5:38-42 WEB)
5:39 But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.
5:40 If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.
5:41 Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.
5:42 Give to him who asks you, and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you.”
An eye for an eye
These days, when somebody speaks of ‘an eye for an eye,’ it is often to justify their desire for revenge. Yet there is nothing new about the desire for revenge, nor in the problem of escalating vendettas. Indeed this phrase comes to us from the Mosaic law, where it first appeared within a ruling that was intended to deal with just such problems (Exod 21:24, Lev 24:20). This legislation sought to ensure proportionate justice, thus ensuring that the penalty an injured party could demand in court could not exceed the damage caused.
Yet the wording also occurs in another of the Hebrew Bible's legislative codes (Deut 19:21). It is this ruling that is of the greater interest to the student of the Sermon on the Mount, for it establishes that the principle of proportionate justice also applies in cases of perjury. Thus establishing that a false witnesses could be pursued for damages, whilst simultaneously establishing a ceiling upon them.
Instead, Jesus says, don't resist evil. The term 'resist' was an evocative one, as this word was so frequently used in the context of Israel's ability to triumph over their enemies. Yet the first place the word is used in the Hebrew Bible is significant, for it makes it clear that the inability to resist evil is a symptom of Israel's failure to honour their commitments to God. In times of blessing the prophets assured Israel that they would resist evil, in times of apostasy the prophets changed their tune. As at the time of Israel's exile in Mesopotamia, there was no point in the apostate resisting the evil permitted to humiliate them, remove their covering, force them into servitude, and depriving them of their wealth. Any such resistance just makes matters worse, only sincere remorse and repentance will improve matters. It is to such repentance that Jesus now turns his attention.
Having just dealt with theft, there is a sense that this saying is transitional from that topic, for Jesus here provides three examples that clearly involve re-payment of double, and a fourth in a similar vein.
- they want one cheek, give them two;
- they want one garment, give them two;
- they want one mile, give them two;
- they want one handout, give them two.
The repayment of double was a familiar legal principle applied to cases of theft, the thief being expected to make restitution for their crime by paying back double. A thief could demonstrate their sincere remorse by making this gesture voluntarily, rather than waiting for the authorities to extract it from him.
In these verses Jesus advocates a voluntary double payment of penalties. If we assume that the repayment should fit the crime, then one might suggest that those who have despised God should willingly be doubly despised, those who have failed to cover the needy should do so doubly, those who have refused to serve should serve doubly, those who have failed in giving, should be doubly charitable.
The previous verses have highlighted that failure to honour your promises to God is theft, for those who have failed in such a fashion,
resisting is not the right course, for they are in the wrong, instead by paying double they should show their remorse and throw themselves
upon God's mercy.
Those who followed Jesus were suffering at the hands of false witnesses, persecutors who misrepresented the very God who had placed them in their positions of authority. Yet Jesus advocates that they should remain compassionate towards these individuals and do them good, rather than advocate their punishment.
Jesus contrasts the attitude, of conniving to see one’s adversary suffer, with the Godly attitude of love for enemies, an attitude that does not ask 'what can I get', but 'what can I give?'
Just as God blesses the wicked with a stay of judgement, which is greater than their actions might seem to deserve, so Jesus encourages us to go the extra mile and find a way to bless those who don’t deserve it.
These three examples of radical true-witness, not resisting, paying double, and loving your enemy, provide a prelude to the three examples of hypocrisy, in fasting, prayer and giving, that Jesus is about to present. So this is yet another of the Sermon on the Mount's many structural patterns, each of which helps to demonstrate (and preserve) its integrity.