by Grace Hunter

You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for 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. Matthew 5:38-42 NIV

At first glance, Jesus seems to be directly contradicting the law of Moses in this section of His Sermon on the Mount teaching. Is that really what is happening here? Let’s look a little deeper. We are looking at little segments of the Sermon on the Mount each week, but it is important to keep the broader context in mind as well. Earlier Jesus said,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:17-20 NIV

So, is Jesus teaching against the law? Or perhaps is He teaching that the law had been misinterpreted by leaders, Pharisees and scholars, that this is what He is seeking to correct. This section is prefaced once again with the statement, “You have heard that it was said” Matthew 5:38a. My NIV text note on Matthew 5:21 says,

The contrast Jesus sets up (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43) is not between the Old Testament and his teaching (he has just established the validity of the Old Testament Law Matthew 5:17-20). Rather, it is between externalistic interpretation of the rabbinic tradition on the one hand, and Jesus’ correct interpretation of the Law on the other.

The law that Jesus is referring to in this section is found in Leviticus 24:19-20, Exodus 21:22-24, and in Deuteronomy 19:16-21. Each has similar wording, but Deuteronomy gives us some extra context.

If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse a man of a crime, the two men involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the LORD before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Deuteronomy 19:16-21 NIV

These instructions were given to judges and priests – not to everyone. This was a principle to be applied by judges or priests in judgements of wrongdoers. It described the punishment fitting the crime, not literally cutting off someone’s foot or hand. It was also described as a deterrent against wrong doing in general. Some leaders in Jesus’ day were not applying this law correctly. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:39-42 demonstrates how the law of love, not a law of retaliation, is applied in God’s kingdom. Pray through the Lord’s Prayer while thinking on these principles.

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