Matthew 5:38-40 in the Sermon on the Mount addresses the very human impulse to get even when someone does harm to you. Jesus succinctly says here, “Don’t do it!” The initial phrase, “an eye for an eye”, has become a justification in our time for getting even with the person who has done something against us. There is an Old Testament principle of reciprocity behind the phrase. When judging injury done to another, if there is harm, pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand (Exodus 21:23-25). There is a similar call in Leviticus 24:20 when someone injures their neighbor: whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.”
Sometimes called the “law of retribution” or lex talionis, this was a legal principle stating that punishment for wrongdoing should not exceed the crime. What’s more, as Exodus 21:22 indicated, judges and not the aggrieved person decided how to apply the principle in any specific case. Jesus clearly says: “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39). It seems the message here is: “Don’t take the law into your own hands!”
In his commentary on Matthew, Leon Morris readily acknowledged how easily a desire for revenge rises up within us. “We have a natural tendency to retaliate when anyone harms us (or even when the harm is in our imagination!).” But Jesus challenges us to not seek to settle scores; to not hit back when someone hits us. This is again the message in 5:39: “To be the victim of some form of evil does not give us the right to hit back.” Even if someone were to legally deprive you of your tunic, don’t resist. Rather, give him your cloak as well.
Again there is an allusion to an Old Testament regulation in Exodus 22: 26-27 and Deuteronomy 24:12-13. If a neighbor’s cloak was taken in pledge for a loan, you should return it to him before evening, so he has something to sleep in. “A person had an inalienable right to his cloak; it could not be taken away from him permanently. Its voluntary surrender is thus significant.” Craig Blomberg said that in modern context, “coat” and “shirt” are parallels to “cloak” and “tunic” respectively. So the message is to go further than just giving up the shirt off your back.
As if this wasn’t enough, Jesus then said if you were forced to go one mile, go two. Here the reference is to the practice of “impressment,” which allowed a Roman soldier to conscript someone to carry his equipment or some other burden for one Roman mile. This was a legal and customary practice dating back to the time of the Persian government postal service. Both people and animals could be called upon without notice for temporary service. Again there is an echo of a modern saying, that of going the second or extra mile.
John Nolland noted in his commentary on Matthew how this practice could easily be abused by the Romans and resented by the Jews. “Hostility to Roman rule would make such impressment yet more distasteful.” Jesus said the proper response is generous and ungrudging compliance. It seems Jesus intensifies his point by giving a series of admonitions that could be rendered today as: Don’t take the law into your own hands! Don’t just give up the shirt off your back; give up your coat as well. Go beyond what is required of you; go that second mile.
One of the early daily meditation books used in Alcoholics Anonymous was the classic Christian devotional by Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for Your Highest. On July 14th, Chambers reflected on this passage, saying the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is not to do your duty. Rather it is do what is not your duty. Don’t insist on your rights. Be humble. “Never look for right in the other man, but never cease to be right yourself. We are always looking for justice; the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is—Never look for justice, but never cease to give it.”
Here we touch on what Bill W. said was the number one offender, destroying more alcoholics than anything else—resentment. In each and every situation Jesus gave in Matthew 5:38-41, resentment for the injury, insult and injustice that occurred would be expected. Jesus is saying, “Don’t go there.” Oswald Chambers says: Don’t look for justice, but never stop giving it to others. In his essay on Step Four, Bill W. said we need to learn that something has to be done about our vengeful resentments, self-pity, and unwarranted pride.
We had to see that when we harbored grudges and planned revenge for such defeats, we were really beating ourselves with the club of anger we had intended to use on others. We learned that if we were seriously disturbed, our FIRST need was to quiet that disturbance, regardless of who or what we thought caused it. . . . Where other people were concerned, we had to drop the word “blame” from our speech and thought.
After the first two or three attempts, the way ahead begins to look easier. “For we had started to get perspective on ourselves, which is another way of saying that we were gaining in humility.”
This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”