verse XXI – the hardest lessons
That extra mile.
“Go the extra mile.” I’m sure that most of us are familiar with this expression. This familiar phrase is based on the words of Yeshua/Jesus found in Matthew 5:38-42,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evildoer. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him also the other. And the one wanting to sue you and to take your shirt, let him also have your coat. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn away from the who wants to borrow from you.”
These short verses are, however, some of the most difficult words to live by; theologian John Stott said of them, they are “the most admired and most resented.” They have been used to formulate a theology of Christian pacifism. Gandhi used them as in inspiration for his non-violent approach toward the often-brutal British government. And the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was as much influence by these words as he was Gandhi.
Yet, are we expected to be pacifists? Or is Yeshua directing us to a higher way to live the life of faith?
Any reader of the Bible can easily recognize that pacifism is not the expected normative practice of the people of God – as there are situations which necessitate what is called a “just war.” The scope of “just war” theory is much too broad for me to address in this article.
Does that mean that the Bible allows us to fight, argue, and battle with everyone? Obviously the answer is no. The normative practice is the way of godliness, “loving our neighbor … stranger … and even our enemy;” but there are times when we, by necessity, must respond with force and in strength.
What Yeshua is not saying.
Yeshua is not speaking in Matthew 5:38-42 of our response in situations of violence, abuse or sudden attack – He is speaking in terms of litigation and enforcement of rights. How can this be determined? Context, and the inclusion of seemingly unrelated concepts or legal matter, helps us to determine the direction and origin of His instruction.
Messiah begins by saying, “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for an eye…” This is the principal of Lex Talionis, the “law of talion,” which is retaliation authorized by law – a means of punishment that corresponds in kind and degree to the injury suffered.
What’s that mean?
The command of Lex Talionis is first found in Exodus 21:23-24,
נֶפֶשׁ תַּחַת נָפֶשׁ ,עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן, שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן, יָד תַּחַת יָד, רֶגֶל תַּחַת רָגֶל
“life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
Contrary to popular belief, this type of justice was not “literally” expected from the Law, except in the case of “life for life,” with someone guilty of intentional murder. This instruction, appearing in the both Exodus and Deuteronomy, was speaking of monetary compensation for physical damages; or in the case of a slave, freedom because of injury.
In Exodus 21:23-25, (Deuteronomy 19:21 is within the context of the City of Refuge and general legal proceedings.) we read of the Law of Talion regarding a woman who has prematurely delivered her baby because of involvement in a struggle between men (thereby establishment a biblical case for protection of the unborn), “But if there is injury, 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.”
It is more likely that Yeshua had Leviticus 24:19-21 in mind in the Sermon on the Mount, as we read, “And when a man inflicts a blemish upon his neighbor, as he has done so it is done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he inflicts a blemish upon him, so it is done to him. And he who strikes a beast repays it, and he who strikes a man to death is put to death.”
The instruction of Leviticus 24 has been understood to be speaking of valuation and rightful compensation in non-lethal cases. Still, Yeshua takes this concept and elevates it even higher.
Yeshua is admonishing those who follow Him to lay aside vengeance, not self-defense. The law of talion, as a general legal principal within the court system of Israel, was used by Pharisees to justify and limit individual vengeance (the “you have heard it said part”). Yeshua says, “don’t take vengeance at all.” In Matthew 5:43-48, Yeshua commands us to love our enemies. The opposite of love for our enemies is not self-defense, as one might assume, it’s vengeance.
What should our response be to: being sued in court; or forced to go on a journey; being asked for a loan? Our response should not be to plan how we can impose commensurate pain on the other person or gain some sort of payback for ourselves. Rather, as difficult as it seems, Yeshua wants us, even in such situations, to love and serve our enemies, to find some way to help the one who wishes to hurt us. Peter adds that when such an oppressor has authority over us, we should honor that authority, being willing to endure unjust suffering, as Yeshua did (1 Pet. 2:13 -3:17).
Turning the other cheek.
Yeshua speaks of turning the cheek when slapped; from rabbinic writings this historically was understood to either be a slap of insult physically or a verbal insult. It was not meant to be used in reference to an act of violence, terror, abuse or anything that might be life threatening. As an example, Christian policemen or soldiers are not biblically prohibited from defending themselves; rather, Yeshua is explaining that in certain situations, when people are doing evil to us – to our reputations or by making false accusations – we are to handle ourselves differently.
Turning and making the other cheek available to be slapped is not the usual way of handling this type of situation; note that Yeshua did not say run away. So it is our response within the situation that needs to be different. How we are presenting ourselves, and communicating at that time?
A difficult resistance.
As Messiah says, “do not resist an evil person.” This should be understood as a person who is doing evil to you. In this we find what some might see as an apparent contradiction, as the apostles James and Peter both express the idea of “resisting the devil.”
The devil is evil, but he is not a person – we resist him and his schemes and he will flee from us; but a person, even if they are acting in an ungodly fashion are still created in the image and likeness of the Living God and are in need of salvation and deliverance.
The apostle Paul explains in Romans, “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Ro. 12:17-21).
Can you win your enemy over by your manner? Will they salute your godly behavior? Your godly attitude? Admittedly, this is not easy. There will be times when we can “work on” an enemy, attempting to win them over by not returning the favor of abuse or advantage.
The words of Messiah, as difficult as this will be to accept, are about not relying on your rights as a basis for your relationships with others. We must be prepared to take a lowly position as followers of Messiah – the position of a servant. We must be willing to imitate the example of Messiah, and ultimately pay the price for being His disciple.
My favorite shirt? My time? A warning.
Moreover, Yeshua challenges us even with regard to our clothing and other possessions, and our time. Give them your cloak, give them what they ask of you, and walk the extra mile with them. Yeshua is warning us that there are people like this out there – some who are known to us and others who will simply approach us out of the blue – who demand of us what is not theirs to demand.
In the time of Yeshua, the tunic and the cloak were very personal items; for someone to sue you for your “tunic” was to assert that they had some right to it. What Yeshua is explaining, is that some people will attempt to take advantage of us, relying on what they assume is their legal right before the Lord.
According to Yeshua’s words, we are not to turn away from helping them out of hand – but, we learn from other places in the Scriptures that we are not to give foolishly either. Giving to someone who legitimately needs food, clothing or shelter is not the same as someone demanding money for drugs, alcohol or other destructive habits – in all things, we need discernment.
The greatest lesson.
What we learn most of all from these verses is that there is great difficulty in following Yeshua; the more closely we walk with Him, the more verses like these will challenge us, and ultimately change us.
Here we find another application of the grace of God, to overcome our shortfall. If we are pursuing a righteousness that is greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, there are times when the giving will hurt – but ultimately, the blessing will come.
Mark Twain, speaking of the Bible, said “It is not the verses in the Bible I don’t understand that worry me; it is those I understand all too well that worry me.”
Let us give serious attention to the words of Yeshua, and ask for the guidance and help of the Holy Spirit in living them.
Shalom. Be well.