One of the best helps for interpreting the Sermon on the Mount properly is to remember that Jesus’ stipulations deal directly with interpersonal relationships within the covenant community and, secondarily, with those outside the church. It is not as if He has nothing to say to the structures of society, it is just that we err if we treat Christ’s words here as primarily dealing with law courts, warfare, and other broad societal and governmental concerns.
Consider today’s passage in which Jesus discusses the Law’s “eye-for-an-eye” justice (Matt. 5:38–42; see Ex. 21:23–25). Many assume He is saying that the so-called lex talionis is wrong, but such interpretations make Christ one who denies the goodness of God’s law (Rom. 7:7), not the one who fulfills it (Matt. 5:17–20). As God Himself, Jesus knows that eye-for-an-eye justice is wise, instituted to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. Justice in ancient Israel’s tribal system could have easily become endless feuding without this law. Without the lex talionis, in ancient times my family might kill you to avenge your breaking of my leg, your family might then kill my family, and so on. Today, news of young girls being raped or killed as punishment in some Islamic countries for “violating” their family’s “honor” reveals the righteousness of the lex talionis.
Eye-for-an-eye justice was given to the courts in Israel to ensure that victims received adequate restitution. However, the lex talionis was never intended to justify retaliation for everyday, personal offenses. This is what Jesus is talking about in today’s passage. A slap on the “right cheek,” which basically amounts to a personal insult, must not be returned in kind (Matt. 5:39). Believers give up their law-given right to keep their outer cloak (5:40; see Ex. 22:26–27), that is, we may not appeal to our legal rights every time we are wronged. The lex talionis restrains vengeance to help us cultivate a generous heart that overlooks personal offenses and forgives for the kingdom’s sake. In short, Matthew Henry says, “Christians must not be litigious; small injuries must be submitted to, and no notice taken of them; and if the injury is such as requires us to seek reparation, it must be for a good end, and without thought of revenge.”
The last point of Matthew Henry’s quote is important since there are times when seeking reparation may in fact be the best way to love our neighbor and keep him from sinning further. Such occasions, however, will be few and far between. We are to endure insults and offenses meekly, doing extra even for those who do not deserve it (Matt. 5:41). When someone asks you for a favor, volunteer to go above and beyond their request.
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