Concerning Retaliation

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved

(i) Characters:

The passage begins with reference to ‘you’. ‘You’ refers to the crowd Jesus was speaking to.

The audience of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) are the poor of Galilee. It is estimated that at the time of Jesus, 90% of people lived close to, or below the poverty line. These people were living under the repression of their Roman overlords and the urban elite who owned most of the property. The people were heavily taxed and expected to pay, regardless of the quality of the harvest, or whether there was drought, flood, diseases or the ravages of warfare. If people lost the essential resources of living, they became destitute and many had lost their ancestral lands. The peasants had little control over their political and economic situation and were subject to corrupt legal processes and the Romans. This situation is reflected in the three examples of nonviolence Jesus gives in this text.

‘The Sermon on the Mount’ begins with Jesus seeing the crowds and going up the mountain (Mt 5:1). Jesus sits down, taking the traditional position of a rabbinical teacher with their pupils positioned around them. Jesus’ disciples come to him and he begins to speak and teach them. 

(ii) Geography:

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) takes place on a mountain in Galilee. It is unlikely that this siting is historically accurate as Matthew has gathered the saying together to frame his writing. Today the Sermon on the Mount is remembered on the Mount of the Beatitudes on the north west shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Church of the Beatitudes is at its summit.

The significance of Matthew placing this teaching block on a mountain should not be overlooked: it continues to allude to Jesus as the new Moses. Just as Moses gave the Israelites the 10 commandments, so now Jesus is giving a new law.

Given the rural setting for the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ it is appropriate to consider that those gathered around him are the poor villagers in the area: farmers, fishers and their families, along with those who follow Jesus throughout his ministry. 

(iii) Customs or rituals:

The reference to Leviticus and the law is evident throughout this text: outside this context it is easy to misunderstand.

Questions for the teacher

How does the information assist you in understanding the text?
What else do you need to know?
How might Matthew’s community have reacted to this text?
What do the students already know about the worlds behind the text? What else might the students need to know? What could be some questions the students might ask?