The next thing Jesus tackled in His Sermon on the Mount was a law that Moses gave in the book of Deuteronomy. It said: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” I’ve know some people to find this repulsive and brutal, but my guess is that they hadn’t thought it through very deeply. That law was given as a powerful way to bring justice to the nation of Israel. If one person harmed another Israelite, they would be punished by having the exact same thing happen to them. If you poked out someone’s eye, justice required that you lost your eye as well! It was a good way to stop people from poking each other’s eyes out. The same was true if you broke their tooth or did anything else to hurt someone.
This law not only stopped people from hurting each other, it protected the people once the damage was done. If you poked someone’s eye out, he couldn’t ask to have both your eyes gouged out. And if he took out both of your eyes, he would know that he would be blind soon as well. The worst punishment that could happen to you was the harm you had caused the other person. The victim would see justice, but it couldn’t be overdone.
This was a very important, just law. In many of the tribes and nations during the time of the Old Testament, they didn’t have this rule. It made life very difficult for people who didn’t have power or money or friends to protect them. If you were a poor man, and you poked out the eye of a rich man, he could have you killed. If you broke someone’s tooth, his whole family might come after you and break both your legs. Or they could hurt someone you love. It would become a matter of family honor to hurt you and humble you. Then your family would want to save face by doing something even worse. Your brothers and cousins would go and break every leg in the other family to get back, and the violence would escalate even more. Whole families and tribe would wage bitter battles against each other for centuries. Instead of having a just ending, things would get more intense and dangerous. The most powerful man or clan or family would terrorize and lord over the weaker ones. Generations of people would live in arrogant abuse of power or horrifying fear.
That was not what God wanted for the tribes and clans of His holy nation. He wanted peace and justice. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” created an excellent, clear boundary to create a more just society in a cursed world.
But now Jesus was introducing an even higher code. This was the ethical code of His Kingdom. It is so high that it is a little breathtaking. He said:
“‘You have heard it said, “Eye for an eye, tooth for a 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.”
Wow. That is a very lavish and complete generosity. Do you think it is even possible? Can you imagine trying to live up to this high standard? What if someone came up to you and asked you for your jacket. Would you hand it to them? If someone slapped you, would you be able to stand before them and turn your face so they could slap your other cheek? Does that even sound wise? If you think about what that would look like in every day life, it almost seems crazy! What did Jesus mean?
Well, Jesus was in the business of establishing the Kingdom of God. His people are meant to show the ways of God. They are to be salt and light to the cursed world. They bless the world by being people of humility and mercy and meekness wherever they go. Their honor does not come from winning battles or protecting their dignity. It comes from being the adopted children of the Most High God. When they stand in that strength, they are able to scorn the insults and shame that life in this world can bring. They will begin to look like Jesus, who scorned the shame of the cross in order to bring salvation to the very people that nailed Him to it.
In this wicked world, being strong, more powerful, and in full control is celebrated. Think how different that is from how the Son of God lived when He walked the earth. He is the Creator of the Universe! He is all-powerful! He keeps every star blazing and holds every cloud aloft. He enlivens the breath of every creature through every moment of history! Yet when He came to earth, He was a simple carpenter. His disciples were common laborers. He allowed treacherous, selfish men to kill Him. In that terrible moment, it looked like Jesus had lost the game. Even His disciples thought it was over. But through His achingly beautiful sacrifice, Jesus conquered all the power of Satan. He utterly destroyed sin and death.
With that stunning act, Jesus was modeling the nature of His Kingdom. God was breaking into the cursed world with a force that is foreign and alien to people shrouded in sin. It is the power of humility and love. He longs for the people of His Kingdom to serve Him with the same humility. They are to be poor in spirit, meek, merciful, and ready to take persecution for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Their lives will share in the sufferings that Jesus bore. That is astonishing and difficult, isn’t it? It requires true sacrifice. But it is also amazing. The Lord has given His disciples the privilege of joining the winning team in the Ultimate Battle.
Choosing humility in daily life may seem like a huge sacrifice with very little reward. If someone tries to hit you, what do you want to do? Run away? Hit back? Most of us would want to do one or the other, but Jesus tells us to be brave and to stand. Don’t run, and don’t get sucked into someone else’s violence. Turn your cheek and give your opponent a far more dramatic set of choices. Smacking someone who turned his cheek with humility is pretty bad. Choosing not to hit someone even if they won’t retaliate is pretty good, especially if you’re really mad. With your own meekness, you offer and invitation to the other person to make a better choice. But wow, what a radical way to do it!
Imagine what would happen if you gently and humbly turned your cheek to someone who angrily slapped you. If they are in any way a decent person, what will they do? Imagine how their anger might fly away. Imagine what everyone watching would see. We have to ask ourselves…am I willing to do what it takes to be a peacemaker? Am I willing to show a powerful humility that can bring reconciliation? What a commanding strength.
Jesus went on. If someone asks for your coat, give him your shirt as well. That is a pretty extreme obedience! And if we take these words too far, we will end up really bloody and naked.
The best way to think of this is not that we must be forever giving away all our clothes or offering ourselves up to be beaten. We can see that even Jesus did not do this constantly. In the stories of Jesus with the religious leaders, He often spoke back with strong words. Sometimes He left when the situation grew hostile.
What Jesus is asking for is an attitude change in the heart that will lead to different kinds of decision-making. If I see someone in need, is my first response to greedily grasp all my things to myself, or is it to look for a way to help? If someone is rude to me, is my first response to show grace and kindness, or is it to double up on my malice and take them down?
The Lord Jesus wants for us to enter every moment of life in His strength, ready to do whatever He asks us to do, living in the light of the glory and goodness of God, no matter how humbling or sacrificial it is on the level of this passing world. If our hearts are abiding in Him, then we will begin to hear Him. We will come to know Him and seek to obey Him in each situation. And though we will falter and fail, because of His love, we will agree with His will and persevere.
If each person sought wholeheartedly to bring His goodness into our world, imagine the place it would be. No more war, no more greed…transformation of society through the dignity of each heart willingly turned to God. But He won’t coerce us. Each person must make that turn in the center of her own will as He empowers. When Jesus explained His plan to bring His Kingdom on earth, He didn’t say it would come through government control or social planning. He said it would come through proclaiming His Gospel of grace and bringing men and women into transforming relationship with Himself.
Just as Israel was meant to bring the pure and holy Laws of God into a dying world, Christ was breaking into the nation of Israel with the highest and holiest understanding of those Laws. Jesus taught the subjects of His Kingdom to be salt and light to the world through the surprising beauty of their humility. It was not merely about not doing evil…it was not merely about coming against what is bad. It was about expressing unimaginable, God-empowered good. Their utter devotion to God would be so complete that they would willingly take persecution. They would astonish the world. It is a passion of obedience that sinful man cannot understand…but they also can’t explain away. Anyone with eyes to see knows it as something uniquely good and different from the shabby, common ways of the world. We see it in the life of Jesus, in the men that Peter and Paul became, in followers of Christ who have laid down their lives over thousands of years. Jesus was the first, perfect model of this absolute love, and He was calling His disciples to walk like Him.