38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Translation: 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 violently resist the evil one, but whoever strikes you to the right cheek, turn to him the other, and to the one wanting to sue you and taking your tunic, release to him your coat also, and whoever will press you into service one mile, go with him two. To the one asking you, give, and to the ones wanting to borrow from you, do not turn away.
You have heard that it was said, "You will love the one near you and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for the ones persecuting you, that you might come to be children of your Father who (is) in heaven, for he makes his sun rise upon the evil ones and good ones, and he sends rain upon the just ones and the unjust ones, for if you love the ones loving you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you embrace your brothers and sisters alone, what more are you doing? Do not even the gentiles do the same? You-all, therefore, will be consummated ones as your Father in heaven is consummation.
Background and situation: Most of the text has its origin in Q, though Matthew's version is in a different order than in Luke. For example, Matthew 5: 39b-40 is parallel to Luke 6: 29-30; Matthew 5:44 with Luke 6 27; 5:46-47 with Luke 6: 32-34, 5:42 resembles Luke 6:34 (also Gospel of Thomas 95).
The reading is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. The "six antitheses" run from 5:21-48. Four of the six were in last week's reading. This week's reading contains the other two--one dealing with retaliation against enemies, the other in regard to loving of enemies.
Following the Beatitudes and the announcement of the Jesus movement as "salt" and "light," the focus of the sermon moves to these six instances in which Jesus pronounces on established law. His purpose is not to establish a "new law', even less a new and improved Old Community. His purpose is an articulation of life as it is lived in the New Community which lives the reign of God on earth, what Martin Luther King called "the beloved community."
Retaliation against enemies: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." He could have gone on. The original Exodus law (21:24-25) reads "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."
The original purpose of this law was to mitigate revenge and free the people from blood feuds and excessive retaliation. If someone in your family loses an eye, that does not mean you can cut off the head of the perpetrator.
Nevertheless, even this level of violence--justifiable violence, you might say--is rejected by Jesus. This is the way it was, says Jesus, but I tell you: Always practice non-violence.
Most translations have Jesus saying, "Resist not evil," or "Do not resist an evil person." Considering that Jesus himself resisted evil wherever it reared its ugly head, and considering that Jesus calls his followers into exactly the same ministry which he is doing, this seems baffling, and contradictory to what follows.
Walter Wink makes the case that antistenai ("resist") has to do with violence. The word is formed from anti--"against"--and stenai--"to stand." Literally, the word means "stand against" or "withstand." Wink notes its repeated use in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) as a word for "warfare." Likewise, it appears in Ephesians in a context of warfare (6:13). Josephus, writing in the time of Jesus, continually uses antistenai to mean armed struggle.
Therefore, the sentence should be translated: "Do not violently resist the evil one." This is entirely consistent with the over-all sense of the text, especially as Jesus then moves to some illustrative examples of how to resist evil non-violently.
"Whoever strikes you to the right cheek, turn to him the other." People in ancient times did not initiate action with their left hand since the left hand was considered unclean. If they were going to strike someone, they would do it with their right hand.
This does not refer to a punch in the face because the physics doesn't work. How would someone land a right hook on someone else's right cheek? They can't because it can't be done.
The only way to strike another person on their right cheek is by back-handing the person, which is an insult, an expression of dominance. In the first century, the people most likely to be back-handed were slaves, women, children, and people considered somehow "lesser" than their Roman overlords.
Jesus does not counsel passivity in the face of insult--quite the contrary. If someone backhands you on the right cheek, lift your head back up, turn your cheek and expose the left one as well. You have dignity as a human being. Don't let someone else take that away from you. Don't hang your head and accept servility. Stand there with head held high. That way, you are defining your own self and not letting someone else define you as "lesser." This is how to resist evil non-violently.
"To the one wanting to sue you and taking your tunic, release to him your coat also." The coat, or outer garment, was sometimes used by the (very) poor as collateral for a loan (Dt 24: 10-13). If the coat was used for collateral, it had to be returned to the person by nightfall so they could sleep in it. The next morning, however, the person's creditors could come and get it again.
The situation Jesus describes is one in which a destitute peasant is getting pestered to the point of being sued for his underwear. Most of Jesus' listeners, keep in mind, were poor and stood in danger of getting poorer. It's not for nothing that Jesus refers often to debt. That would have been the lived experience of many in his audience.
If you're getting sued for your underwear, give up the dang coat. Walk around naked if you have to. Isaiah did it--for three years! At least you're in good company (Isaiah 20: 3). One notes as well that Jesus himself would be slapped and have his cloak removed. (26:67; 27:35)
Nakedness was considered shameful in the ancient world. Not only that, but anyone who viewed a naked person was also shamed. Giving your "coat also" is, therefore, confrontational. It says: I'm willing to strip off my clothes. I expose myself as a way of exposing the whole oppressive system. Do you really want to go there?
Jesus is using exaggeration and hyperbole to make a very important point: These laws are unjust, and the Lord God is not on the side of your oppressor.
Yes, there was much money-lending in the time of Jesus, but charging poor people interest was illegal according to Torah. Exodus 22:25 clearly says: "If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them."
"Release your coat also" is an expression of disgust at the whole rotten system that perpetrates poverty, denies dignity, takes everything you've got, and encourages the ones who benefit from it to imagine themselves superior. "You can't take my coat; I free give it"--this is a way of asserting personal agency in the face of dehumanizing oppression.
"Whoever will press you into service one mile, go with him two." This refers to the practice of angereia. The Romans made it a law that they could press anyone into service, i.e. make them carry a soldier's gear, for one mile. (The typical Roman soldier's gear weighed about 70 pounds.) This is what allowed the Romans to make Simon of Cyrene carry Jesus' cross (Mark 15: 21).
Pressing Jews into service was widely practiced throughout the country--and widely resented. Abuses were so widespread, in fact, that Rome later applied some limits. You know things are bad when even Rome thinks it's too much.
Carrying the soldier's gear an additional mile has nothing to do with impressing a Roman soldier with what a swell person you are--again, quite the contrary. It is an assertion of independence and personal autonomy in a situation that is ordinarily dehumanizing. Go that second mile and the power balance starts to shift. The Roman soldier may have to answer to his superiors over this. Who's controlling the situation now?
People say non-violence doesn't work, but over the past several years, there have been many countries which experienced non-violent revolutions: India, Ghana, Guatemala, South Africa, the Philippines, to name a few. In the days of Boris Yeltsin, non-violent demonstrators in Russia kept that country from reverting to military dictatorship. People say non-violence isn't practical, but one could argue that these situations seem to be working out better than their violent alternatives in other places.
Love of enemies: Someone once said that everything Jesus taught can be found somewhere in the prophets--with one exception: love of enemies. That was one teaching of Jesus that was indisputably new--and indisputably counter-intuitive.
Strictly speaking, there was no word in Torah that encouraged hatred of enemies, though, not surprisingly, hatred of enemies was certainly widespread, as it is among every people and culture, down to and including the present day. Hatred of enemies has at least some scriptural support. Psalm 137 certainly hates the Babylonians. See also Psalm 139, for example:
19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
Torah did command love of neighbor (Lev 19:18), but that same command also presumes that one may hate those outside the tribe. "You shall not hate anyone...of your kin," says Leviticus, which means that you may hate those not of your kin. "You shall not take vengeance...against any of your people," but those not of your people are fair game.
Jesus does not deny that his people have real enemies. The category of "enemy" is not denied or rejected. He will not, however, accept limits on love. You are "children of your Father," after all, and your Father loves his enemies: "for he makes his sun rise upon the evil ones and good ones, and he sends rain upon the just ones and the unjust ones."
Resist evil, yes, but do so in a way that preserves your own dignity and the dignity of your oppressor. This is what it means to truly love your enemies. It has nothing to do with feelings, but with the way in which the New Community reflects and expresses the love of God in the world.
This reminds me of the little story about the teacher who was holding up a picture of Jesus while also telling the class that, really, we don't know what Jesus looked like, to which a little girl said, "Well you have to admit: It looks a lot like him." When people see God's children, there should be a family resemblance, says Jesus.
Consummation: "You-all, therefore, will be consummated ones (teleioi) as your Father in heaven is consummation (teleios)." The typical translation has "be perfect," which many wrongly understand to mean moral purity or moral perfection. It does not mean that.
Teleioi comes from the word telos, which means complete, end, goal. The fourth gospel used a form of this word when Jesus said tetelestai from the cross, which may be translated "it has been accomplished," or "it has been brought to the goal," or "it has been consummated."
Telos is a major word in the New Testament, though it's only use in Matthew's gospel occurs here. It succinctly summarizes the Sermon on the Mount to this point: Act in light of the kingdom. Achieve your full maturity. Reflect God's consummation of the universe in daily life.
Or, as my seminary advisor once put it, "The Sermon on the Mount is there for the purpose of being done."
Image: Sermon on the Mount, lithograph by Otto Dix, 1891-1961, German Expressionist