Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

57. An Eye for an Eye (Matthew 5:38-42; Luke 6:29, 30)*

Repeatedly the Law of Moses laid down the principle which was to govern wilful injury done by one man to another. Like the earlier precepts of the Law cited and re-applied by Jesus, this also was badly misconstrued by the scribes, some of them chose to read eye for eye and tooth for tooth as having a strictly literal intent. Yet applied in the letter it could produce palpably unjust decisions. If a one-eyed man was to destroy in a fit of temper an eye of his fellow, must he therefore lose his one eye and go miserably blind for the rest of his life?

A Legal Principle

But of course this was not a law of retribution but of compensation. A man was never at liberty to take vengeance according to this scale - eye for eye, tooth for tooth - on the basis of his own judgement. This was to be the principle guiding judges and magistrates. The invariable context in the Law makes this very clear: “And the judges shall make diligent inquisition, and behold, if the witness be a false witness... then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother” (Dt. 19:16-21). “And he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, etc.” (Ex. 21:22, 23).

Nor was the injunction to be applied literally. It expressed in a figure the legal principle of financial compensation for damage done. The passage just cited indicates this. If an ox gored the slave of another man, the literal Lex Talionis (law of retaliation) would require that the first man’s slave should be gored also-a palpably silly legal decision. But Exodus 21:32 lays down the rate of monetary compensation in such a case. Similarly, if one man’s ox damaged the ox of another so that it had to be destroyed, the literal application of “an eye for an eye” would require that the other’s ox be destroyed also. But Moses laid down a different solution to the problem: compensation after the sale of the unmanageable ox. This, coming in the immediate context of “an eye for an eye” etc., shows very clearly that monetary compensation, and not strict literalism, is the basis of this legal principle; cp. also Lev.24:19, 21. Yet to this day Moses’ Law of the Talon (as it is frequently miscalled) is more often misunderstood than not.

It is simply a legal principle of compensation for damage done. In fact, it is the ordinary principle which governs such cases in practically every civilised country today. There are, indeed, few Bible passages about which such ignorant rubbish has been talked as about this.

Even with the interpretation just stated, this commandment was still not at all what Jesus wanted it to be. His re-statement of it sounds at first like a caricature: Whatever the penalty or hardship your adversary brings upon you, instead of seeking the equivalent compensation, add of your own free will a further contribution equivalent to what you have already lost. And he proceeded to illustrate the spirit of this Law of Gentle Retaliation as it might apply in private relationships, in a legal action, and in political oppressions -- body, property, and freedom.

The Other Cheek

“I say unto you, that ye resist not evil (or, resist not the evil man): but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” It is a vivid picture of a blow delivered on the right cheek with the back of the right hand. In other words, insult rather than physical hurt. But turning the other cheek means that that right hand comes into action again, this time administering a hard painful slap with the open palm.

Here in a phrase is the final answer to all who would dragoon the servants of Christ into fighting the world’s wars. Non-resistance and counter-attack are as near opposites as can be. Even self-defence is incompatible with offering the other cheek. And lest there be any doubt as to whether this principle is to operate only between brethren, there is Paul’s explicit renunciation of this commandment with the widest possible scope: “See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men (1 Th. 5:15). And in an epistle which often looks back to the Sermon on the Mount Peter has an obvious reminiscence of the Lord’s words: “Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing; but contrariwise blessing (ie. forgiveness); knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing (forgiveness of your own sins)” (1 Pet. 3:9).

It is evident that this commandment of Christ is not intended to be taken with strict literality any more than the original words of Moses, for, when Jesus was struck by the high priest’s officer, he did not turn the other cheek, but quietly rebuked the cowardly act: “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil, but if well, why smitestthou me?” (Jn. 18:23).

Similarly, when Ananias the high priest bade his men smite Paul across the face, the apostle solemnly pronounced God’s judgment against him. This declaration after the manner of an Old Testament prophet was an inspired utterance, for Jesus had promised: “When they deliver you up (to governors and kings) shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak” (Mt. 10:18, 19).

With examples such as these, it becomes very necessary to beware of literalism or legalism. Rather should one seek to express as fully as possible the spirit of Christ himself in all situations where others show an attitude of hostility. Certainly, no revenge! On this the Old Testament was already explicit regarding a fellow-Israelite:

“Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Lev. 19:18).

“Say not, I will do so to him as he hath done tome”(Pr. 24:29).

“Say not thou, I will recompense evil; but wait on the Lord, and he shall save thee” (20:22).
Jesus has now broadened these precepts to cover all human dealings.

Coat and Cloak

A second illustration: “If a man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.” The words describe shirt or tunic, and long outer robe. In the twentieth century, Jesus would probably have said jacket and overcoat. In the parallel passage in Luke 6:29, the words are reversed. It is another clear warning against being over-literal in one’s application of this teaching.
The Law stipulated that if a creditor took a poor man’s garment as security against a debt, it must be returned to him to sleep in (Ex. 22:27, 26). But Jesus bade his disciples not insist on this right when they were being subject to the rigour of the law. Instead they were to show faith in God’s care, and give both garments. The unrestrained surprise of the other at receiving more than he had even thought of claiming, may be imagined. Such an experience would almost guarantee a complete change of attitude-and; of course, this aim is what lies behind the Lord’s precept. The loss of coat or cloak is unimportant compared with the establishing of good relations with one who is a declared enemy. Paul sums up splendidly: “Rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded” (1 Cor. 6:7).

Oppression by the State

But suppose-illustration number three-it is the state which is your adversary. Even in these days government often interferes with the freedom of the individual. In those days of absolute power, fair treatment of citizens was almost the last thing given any consideration. It was a normal thing for soldiers and officials to be empowered to press into service the goods or beasts or personal services of any civilian, and this without appeal or redress! It is not difficult to imagine the resentment which exercise of these powers invariably provoked. Nevertheless Jesus counselled, and still counsels, ungrudging submission to the demands and exactions of the state, however unfair they might be. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” The only exception is when the higher law of Christ supervenes (Acts. 4:19).

The attitude counselled by Jesus was revolutionary, not in a bad political sense as by Barabbas, but in a good social sense: “Whosoever shall compel thee to go with him a mile, go with him twain”, making four extra miles altogether. And it is clear that the intended corollary to this was: ‘Do this in a good spirit. Even your parting shall not be with curses or grumbling.’


The aim and intention behind this unwonted demeanour is clearly the establishing of good personal relationships. To achieve this. Jesus counsels, a not inconsiderable sacrifice is well worth while. Not only is it a good personal discipline to have to endure an uncongenial experience of this kind, but also such a situation would be guaranteed to provide the Lord’s servant with excellent opportunities to exercise a good personal influence and a worthy witness to faith in Christ.

Both moral aspects of this situation are excellently worked out by L.G. Sargent (“The Teaching of the Master”, page 140): “The object which the Lord has in view in all these injunctions is to develop the character of the disciple into that of a citizen of the Kingdom. But this presents a peculiar difficulty. If the disciple fulfils the command with the same object-his own self-development-then the motive becomes self-regarding and defeats its own end. The man who receives a blow in silence in order that he may be the more a saint is in grave danger of becoming a prig, and prigs certainly do not belong to the class the Lord calls “blessed”. The Christ-like man suffers the blow so that perchance he may win the giver of the blow, and it maybe ‘save a soul from death’.”

Simon of Cyrene

The gospels have a most delightful illustration of how this commandment worked out unexpectedly in the experience of one who did not hear it spoken. Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service by Roman soldiers to help an exhausted Jesus with his cross. It was at most a mile to the place of crucifixion, probably a good deal less. But, having been compelled to help so far, he volunteered to serve yet further. From certain details dotted through the New Testament (Mk. 15:21; Rom. 16:13; Acts 13:1) it is possible to infer with high probability that his unwelcome experience that day meant sufficient contact with Jesus for him to determine that he must serve this “King of the Jews” for ever. This became his extra mile!

The Spirit of the Commandment

Today the principle still holds. In employment, service must not be niggardly but wholehearted, not begrudged but with faithful application and a willing spirit. This, even to a bad employer.

And how much more do these obligations operate in the service of Christ) The constraint of the gospel, willingly and even enthusiastically received at first, becomes to some a tax on personal time and effort which, judging by outward appearances, is almost begrudged. Where is the second mile, or the spirit of it? These proclaim their conviction that their Master is “an austere man” who “reaps what he does not sow”. Yet even if this assessment were truth, and not the slander which it palpably is, the commandment still stands: “Go with him twain” - and learn differently!

Practical Problems

In modern times probably the most difficult application of Christ’s inverted Lex Talionis - the heavenly hand in the human glove- is Example Four which he cited last of all: “Give to him that asketh thee and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” In each of the illustrations already given, there is a certain element of self-interest involved, inasmuch as there is an antagonist or oppressor to be placated. But here there is only supplication and importunity and the uncomfortable contemplation of the need of another who is, maybe, not self-recommended by personal righteousness, for does not the psalmist declare unequivocally: “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread” (Ps. 37:25)?

Yet the Law required this open-handed generosity from the conscientious Israelite: “If there be among you a poor man of thy brethren...thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother...Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him because that for this thing the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto” (Dt. 15:7, 8, 10). These are wonderful words possible of fulfilment only when there is a very real faith in the heavenly promise appended to them.

Unlike Moses, Jesus did not limit the scope of his commandment to “thy brother”. In Luke his words could not be more comprehensive: “Give to every man that asketh of thee; good, and lend, hoping for nothing again” (6:30, 35).

Too Idealistic?

It is here where the idealism of the teaching of Jesus seems to take leave of commonsense altogether. Even in a society where full-scale national welfare takes wide-ranging responsibility for coping with basic material needs, there is ample opportunity for observing how readily human nature presumes on the kindness of others, and battens on their often misplaced sympathy and generosity. The no-man’s land between deserving poverty and undeserved hardship on the one hand and culpable and fawning impecuniosity on the other is not a wide one, and before he knows what is become of him a man may drift from the one to the other. Christian charity can spoil as well as rescue.

Yet Jesus, knowing human nature through and through, added no qualifying clauses. Should it, then, be presumed that he intended none? Here is a practical problem of no small magnitude. If a man of means were to set himself to fulfil these instructions to the letter, it may be taken as certain that within a very short time he would be picked clean, reduced to beggary, and the characters of several of those presuming on his generosity would be ruined in the process. What is the answer?

Since it is impossible to believe that Jesus would readily see characters corrupted for the sake of an abstract principle, it could perhaps be inferred that a literal application of his teaching was not intended - just as neither he nor Paul turned the other cheek literally. The difficulty about this kind of solution is that once the scope of such a principle is left to human judgement, it somehow becomes remarkably narrow. Such is human nature. Reasons for saying: “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled”, whilst refraining from giving those things which are needful, are always ready to hand.

The Lord’s own example

Is it casuistry to stress that Jesus did not command: “To him that asks give just what he asks”? In such situations it not infrequently happens that the one who is being asked knows better than the one who importunes what is good for him. So by all means give. The Lord requires that his disciples do this, but also that their giving be directed to fulfilling the good, rather than the gratification, of the one who asks.

“Lord, bid my brother that he divide the inheritance with me”, clamoured a disciple, and instead he got a blunt warning against his spirit of covetousness (Lk. 12:13-15).

Jesus provided an even better example of this principle in action both in the letter and in the spirit, by his own miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. In this instance the multitude did not need to ask Jesus to help them in their need. He saw this for himself and had compassion on their distress. They all ate and were satisfied. But the next day, in the synagogue at Capernaum, they clamoured for a regular performance of the same miracle: “What sign shewest thou then, that we may see and believe thee? ...Our fathers did eat manna in the desert”-it was an open invitation to make the miracle a daily affair for their own ease and comfort. Jesus rebuked this attitude openly: “Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves and were filled.” And for them there was no repeat of the heaven-provided meal.

Here, then, is a clear indication that when help is sought but the attitude of mind is manifestly wrong, merely to respond to such a request is to do the individual more harm than good. In such a case it becomes a duty to speak a word of reproach or even of rebuke if the one who would abuse the charity of others is to be saved from becoming a parasite on society.

Such situations are never easy to deal with. When there is a suspicion that the request for help is an unhealthy one, springing partly, if not wholly, out of a wish to impose on the good nature of others, it is tempting to turn away with an excuse (which is not a reason) rather than speak the downright refusal, and the grounds for it, which the situation may call for.

Nevertheless, when faced with difficult decisions of this sort it is better always to err on the side of generosity of the undeserving rather than risk leaving unsatisfied a genuine and urgent need.

Another useful guiding principle comes in the context in Luke: “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (6:31). Thus, when there are doubts about the wisdom of literal fulfilment of the Lord’s precept, mentally change places.

Where there is a manifest unwillingness to help oneself out of difficulties Paul’s principle governing such a situation is tersely stated: “If any will not work, neither shall he eat.” In such cases, to “give to him that asketh thee” when the request is repeated and blatant is to do more harm than good to the one who asks.

The right and proper application of these principles of Christian behaviour is no easy matter. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (Jas. 1:5). Here is both heavenly precept and heavenly example.

Notes: Mt.5:38-42

An eye for on eye. Unlike Moses’ laws in Ex. 21, the laws of Khammurabi read very much as if intended to have a strictly literal application; eg. “If a man has struck a gentleman’s daughter and... if that woman has died, one shall put to death his daughter.”
The phrasing of this verse is remarkably like ls. 50:6 LXX, a prophecy of the humiliation of Christ.

Read: Resist not the evil man (and so also in v. 37).

The RV and some other versions have done their best to suggest a personal devil.
Give. Remarkably, this is a continuous imperative.

Turn not thou away. Greek middle voice seems to imply a selfish turning away.

Borrow. Dt. 15:8, 10 is a great passage; but how to reconcile 2 Th. 3:10 with it?

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