(Matthew 5:38-39) ¶ “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’The key to understanding this passage is what God intended by the original commandment of "An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth." The Old Testament repeated the principle several times. These were instructions to the judges who would pronounce sentence on people found guilty of harming others.
39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
(Leviticus 24:19-20) ¶ “If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him—Why were these guidelines given? It seems pretty obvious that these establish a standard of justice. Since this is the rule of civil law, everyone is warned that if they injure someone they will suffer the same injury from the authorities. It is easy to see how such a law should help restrain evil behavior.
20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him.
(Exodus 21:23-25) But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life,
24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
(Deuteronomy 19:21) Your eye shall not pity: life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Consider the wisdom of God in this law. If justice is served by "an eye for an eye" then the matter should be dropped after the punishment is implemented. By giving such a law God is not only warning evildoers that there will be consequences for their actions, but is also saying that revenge cannot go beyond the injury suffered.
So far, so good, but by Jesus' day people took the "eye for an eye" texts to justify personal retribution for every slight. In our depravity we are likely to hold grudges and carry out vendettas. In some times and places whole families have been wiped out in feuds that were sparked by some small incident years earlier. Guess what proof text was used by the combatants to justify such a feud? "An eye for an eye," of course.
Jesus is not now giving us a conflicting ethic. His instruction is in the same direction as the original scriptures. God is still a just God. Justice should still be served. But, as God always intended, justice was not to be in the hands of the individuals involved, but in the hands of the civil authority. Jesus is not negating the Old Testament teaching. In verses 17 and 18 Jesus has just said that He did not come to destroy the law and prophets, but to fulfill them. Instead, Jesus is correcting the WRONG interpretation that had been used to justify personal revenge.
Jesus is teaching that true followers of God are not to be vengeful people who are constantly striking out at others over every perceived slight. The slap on the cheek was not a life threatening blow, but an insult.
The other examples Jesus gives reinforce the point. If the true follower of God is found guilty in a court and sentenced to relinquish his shirt, he should not be resentful, but willing to give up even more to show his regret over his own guilt. (v.40) If you were compelled to carry a Roman soldier's pack one mile, you should not be angry and hostile, but kind and thoughtful so you would carry it even farther than required by the law. (v.41)
The true believer has a different perspective on the whole of his existence. He is focused on a heavenly goal - not earthly. He has bigger fish to fry than the petty matters that occupy most men in their pride. His ethic is to always make God (his heavenly Master) look good.
So what does this teach us about self defense? Matt. 5:38-39 is not addressing self defense, but matters of justice and retribution. We certainly should not be striking back at every perceived insult or slight.
But what if our lives or the lives of our children are under immediate threat? How should we respond if confronted by a murderer, rapist or robber? What should we do then? Is self defense justifiable from the Bible?
Please write to me with your ideas and I will write some more later in the week.