Jesus started the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, 1 which spoke of blessings for the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted. He was teaching what those who were part of the kingdom of God were to be like. Then He moved on to another topic:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” 2
The Old Testament stated that when someone injured or killed another, their punishment was to be equal to their wrongdoing. 3 This concept of proportionate retribution is called lex talionis, and was also present in other ancient codes of law.
The purpose was to lay the foundation of justice, eliminating blood feuds, where one person or family took the law into their own hands because they felt bound to avenge the damage done to them or their relatives. Lex talionis called for equal retribution for the guilty party, so that the matter would be resolved.
However, there are similarities to what Jesus taught even in the Old Testament: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” 4 “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.’” 5
Let’s look at the first example Jesus used: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Slapping someone’s cheek was considered a severe insult, and one could be taken to court and fined for it. In order for a right-handed person to slap someone on their right cheek, it would be necessary to use the back of the right hand, and in those days, slapping someone’s cheek with the back of the hand was considered extra insulting and resulted in a double fine. So Jesus was saying that when someone dishonors you (in this example by giving a backhanded slap on the cheek), you are not to seek financial compensation within the legal system, but rather to accept the insult and not retaliate, and even offer the left cheek for a further insult.
Jesus then specifically speaks of a lawsuit: “If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
This speaks of a situation where one is sued in court for their tunic, or shirt. Jesus says that in such a situation one should give up his cloak or coat as well. For many, giving up their coat—which was generally heavier than a tunic and doubled as a blanket at night—would mean real hardship. According to Old Testament law, it was not legal to keep someone’s coat overnight if you took it as a pledge for a loan. Jesus was saying to go beyond what was demanded, to give the cloak freely even if it meant being cold at night. 6
His third example had to do with the Roman law by which a subjugated people were legally bound to bear a burden or perform a service on command: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
This concept of a person being forced to carry a burden on command of the Romans can be seen when Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross. 7
Jesus was telling His disciples that if they were compelled to do such a service, even by an enemy, they should do so, and more.
The fourth example doesn’t deal with something in the legal realm, but rather reflects more of an everyday situation: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
Jesus is teaching generosity toward those in need, whether they are beggars or someone who would borrow money from you. As in the previous cases, He puts forth an example of the right attitude for members of the kingdom of God. We are to be generous and to give or lend cheerfully. This is not a call to give all you have to beggars, nor that you loan all of your money to others and impoverish yourself. The point is to give with a right attitude, not with a grudging heart. As the apostle Paul wrote when collecting funds for the poor Jerusalem church, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” 8
Through these four examples, Jesus addresses our natural bent toward being selfish or defensive, retaliating, or demanding justice in situations where we consider that we are being taken advantage of or being insulted or hurt in some way.
Jesus calls us to follow the principle of non-retaliation and teaches us to strive against the natural desire to defend ourselves or to desire revenge when someone has harmed, insulted, or wronged us. As Christians, by God’s grace, we are called not to give way to offenses or to model our response according to the actions of others.
The example of the deep insult, as well as that of the tunic and the law, points to the Christian response to personal injustice—of not responding in kind in a spirit of vengeance or retaliation when someone wrongs us. This doesn’t imply that Christians cannot or shouldn’t avail themselves of the legal system when their rights or the rights of others are being infringed upon, particularly when life and liberty or basic human rights are at stake.
The example of being compelled to carry something teaches that when things are legally demanded of us (as long as they are not immoral), we should go the extra mile by doing them willingly and without resentment.
Giving and lending to those that ask addresses the attitude of “what’s mine is mine” and “if I share what I have, I may suffer loss.” Again, Jesus wasn’t advocating giving until we have nothing left and we also become beggars; He was addressing our instinctive self-concern and selfishness. We may not be able to give to everyone, but if someone is in need and we have the means to help, we should. This would especially hold true when it is a brother or sister in Christ, as the apostle John wrote: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” 9
As Christians, members of God’s kingdom, we are challenged to transcend natural behavior. We are to move away from self-interest and become more aware of living the principle of loving our neighbors as ourselves. This isn’t a call to be a “doormat” which everyone walks on; rather it’s a challenge to have an attitude of love, mercy, and compassion, and the dignity to let some things pass, to absorb some loss, whether of face or finances. Rather than retaliating and seeking to defend our pride, or always looking out for our own best interests, we are called to love, to follow Jesus’ example of not looking to His own interests.