Go the Second Mile – Matthew 5:38-42

Part nine in our journey through the Sermon on the Mount. This lesson covers Matthew 5:38-42.

38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (HCSB)

In verse 38, Jesus is referencing several Old Testament passages that address this idea:

  • Exodus 21:24  eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot
  • Leviticus 24:19-20  19 If any man inflicts a permanent injury on his neighbor, whatever he has done is to be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Whatever injury he inflicted on the person, the same is to be inflicted on him.
  • Deuteronomy 19:21  You must not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, and foot for foot.

These passages are often used to, incorrectly, support the idea that portions of the Old Testament were bloodthirsty, savage, and merciless. However, that is misunderstanding the intent of the passages. Let’s consider four points before we proceed.

  • The law of tit for tat, known as lex talionis, is actually showing mercy as it intended to limit retribution. In ancient tribal societies, if one man injured a man from another tribe, it was expected that the tribe suffering injury would take vengeance on all the members of the offending tribe. The passages above direct punishment no greater than the original offense.
  • No law ever gave the right to private individuals to enact punishment. It was for official court proceedings. This is contained in Deuteronomy 19:15-21  15 “One witness cannot establish any wrongdoing or sin against a person, whatever that person has done. A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. 16 “If a malicious witness testifies against someone accusing him of a crime, 17 the two people in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and judges in authority at that time. 18 The judges are to make a careful investigation, and if the witness turns out to be a liar who has falsely accused his brother, 19 you must do to him as he intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from you. 20 Then everyone else will hear and be afraid, and they will never again do anything evil like this among you. 21 You must not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, and foot for foot.
  • In a civilized society, the law was never carried out literally. The Jewish jurists argued rightly that to carry it out literally might, in fact, be the reverse of justice, because it might involve the displacement of a good eye or a good tooth for a bad eye or a bad tooth. Jewish law in the tractate Baba Kamma carefully lays down how the damage is to be assessed. If a man has injured another, he is liable on five counts—for injury, for pain, for healing, for loss of time, and for indignity suffered. In actual practice, the type of compensation that the lex talionis levied is strangely modern.
  • Possibly most important is that the lex talionis is not the summation of Old Testament ethics (Barclay). There are passages of great mercy in the Old Testament:
    • Leviticus 19:18  Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself; I am Yahweh.
    • Proverbs 25:21  If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat,
      and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
    • Proverbs 24:29  Don’t say, “I’ll do to him what he did to me; I’ll repay the man for what he has done.”
    • Lamentations 3:30  Let him offer his cheek to the one who would strike him; let him be filled with shame.

Now that the historical and cultural background is set let’s dive further into the passage. Jesus begins with His now-familiar comment, “But I tell you…” meaning He will clarify the misunderstanding in interpreting the relevant passage. In light of the prevailing ethical thought of the period, Jesus contrasts radically with most others of His day in stressing the need to decisively break the natural chain of evil action and reaction that characterizes human relationships.

Jesus’ disciples are not to think first about retribution. Even when they are being abused, they must think of ways to advance the kingdom of heaven and its influence on this earth.

Jesus uses four illustrations, one each in verses 39-42, from the everyday life of His disciples under oppression to emphasize how they can serve those who offend them. Their ultimate goal is to seek “an opportunity for the enemy to be converted to the truth of God’s kingdom. (Wilkins)”

The term for resist in verse 39 is antistenai and was often used in legal discussions.

  • Isaiah 50:8  The One who vindicates Me is near; who will contend with Me? Let us confront each other. Who has a case against Me? Let him come near Me!
  • 1 Cor 6:7  Therefore, to have legal disputes against one another is already a moral failure for you. Why not rather put up with injustice? Why not rather be cheated?

Jesus is talking about, in a broad sense, not taking revenge on someone who wrongs you. However, there are times we are to resist evil.

  • James 4:7  Therefore, submit to God. But resist the Devil, and he will flee from you.
  • 1 Peter 5:9  Resist him and be firm in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are being experienced by your fellow believers throughout the world.

Verse 39 is not support for Christians to subject themselves or others to physical danger or abuse, nor does it have a direct bearing on the pacifism/just war debate (Blomberg).

Another cultural understanding of the concept of slapping someone on the face sheds further light on this verse. Since most people are right-handed, the best way to slap another on the right side of their face was with a back-handed slap from the offender’s right hand. According to Rabbinical law, to hit a man with the back of your hand was considered twice as insulting as striking with the palm of your hand. The message here is no matter how degrading the insult, a follower of Christ is not to react to the insult.

The second illustration, verse 40, is in a legal setting. Understanding verse 40 requires an understanding of the basic clothing of someone living at that time. It consisted of a loincloth, covered by one or more body-length shirt(s), the outer cloak, a girdle acting as a belt, a head covering, and sandals. The “shirt” (chiton) was the basic garment, a long-sleeved inner robe similar to a nightshirt that a person wore next to the skin. Jesus instructs His disciples that if someone tries to sue for their shirt, they should let him have their “coat” (himation) as well. The coat was the outer robe, which was an indispensable piece of clothing (Wilkins).

The third illustration, verse 41, is a military scene. Israel was subject to something that most of us will never face, an occupying force controlling their nation. The one mile refers to the practice of the Roman soldiers requiring civilians to carry their burden for one mile. By Roman law, the soldier could require no more than one mile of a single porter, but Jesus’ kingdom servants, representing the gracious spirit of their King, are to go beyond what is required of them (Weber).

The fourth illustration, verse 42, is talking about the bothersome people in our lives. These people exist in two forms. The first is the one who “asks.” The Greek word, aiteo, is talking about a poor person who is begging for alms. The second, the who wants to “borrow,” may also indicate someone who is poor. The Greek word is danizo and is also used in Luke 6:34 for someone who is not able to repay the loan. However, giving should never be done in such a way as to encourage laziness or a sense of entitlement. In the long run, that type of giving hurts the recipient. It should always be done in a way to help the individual get back on their feet and become productive.

When we view these four illustrations together, it is easy to see the contrast between what the world views as personal “rights” and what Jesus is calling His followers to pursue as “righteous responsibilities.” Followers of Jesus need to set-aside four “rights” that the world holds dear.

  • The right of retaliation.
  • The right to our “things” or possessions.
  • The right of our time.
  • The right of our money. This may be the single greatest measurement of the depth of our walk with Jesus.

I purposely used the word “our” in three of the above “rights.” In reality, none of those are “ours.” They are God’s to be used for His glory and to further His Kingdom.

How do we apply this passage to our lives?

  • We need to set aside our perceived “rights” and live a life of servitude and sacrifice based upon “righteous responsibilities.”
  • At the same time, we should stand firm on matters of principle and for the rights of others.
    • Acts 16:37  But Paul said to them, “They beat us in public without a trial, although we are Roman citizens, and threw us in jail. And now are they going to smuggle us out secretly? Certainly not! On the contrary, let them come themselves and escort us out!”
    • Acts 22:25  As they stretched him out for the lash, Paul said to the centurion standing by, “Is it legal for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen and is uncondemned?”
    • Acts 25:8-12  while Paul made the defense that, “Neither against the Jewish law,nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I sinned at all.” Then Festus, wanting to do a favor for the Jews,replied to Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem, there to be tried before me on these charges?” 10 But Paul said: “I am standing at Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as even you can see very well.11 If then I am doing wrong, or have done anything deserving of death, I do not refuse to die, but if there is nothing to what these men accuse me of, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar!” 12 After Festus conferred with his council, he replied, “You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you will go!”
  • If we are insulted, regardless of how humiliating, we need to move on and not strike back. That is easier said than done, but that is precisely what Jesus did as He walked obediently to the cross.
  • We should not enter into legal disputes, especially with other Christians.
  • Always do your best in whatever task you undertake. Don’t do it with a grumpy attitude and, if possible, do more than the bare minimum. Col 3:23  Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men.
  • Be generous with your finances. It is better to help twenty fraudulent beggars than risk turning away the one person in real need. Rabbinical law laid out five principles of giving:
  • Giving must not be refused.
    • Giving must befit the person to whom the gift is given.
    • Giving must be carried out privately and secretly.
    • The manner of giving must befit the character and the temperament of the recipient.
    • Giving was at once a privilege and an obligation, for, in reality, all giving is nothing less than giving to God.

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