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: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 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.

The world of the text

a. The structure, literary form (genre) and literary features of this text

This passage is a saying and response in the form of rebuttal, of 5 verses. The structure is very clear: you have heard it said… But I say….

The first part of each statement gives a traditional moral rule or principle taken from the Hebrew scriptures; the second part describes an action which seems counterproductive but each one has a twist in the tail.

The initial saying comes from Leviticus 24:19-21. The intention of this teaching from the Hebrew scripture was not to authorise revenge but rather to limit it. It reflected a desire to de-escalate cycles of revenge and violence. In rebutting the saying, Jesus suggests that one can challenge its presuppositions by actively failing to engage with those who wish to do you harm. Jesus does not issue a command or imperative to passively accept abuse, but instead to counter the violence of the ‘evildoer’ by corrupting their actions.

Jesus offers three other situations as examples of active resistance. The examples would have been well known situations for Matthew’s community; each one challenges a point of law and so demands a change in thinking. As such they would have been humorous to the first century audience and reflective of the abuses of power and the violence people saw around them.

The first example (v.39) is ‘if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’ The key to this passage is which hand is being used on which cheek. To assert dominance, you struck your opponent with your right hand on their right cheek – effectively giving a backhander. If the one being hit then turned the other cheek their abuser faced a choice: hit with the left hand, used for unclean activity, or hit the left cheek with the right hand – which was seen as an action of equality and recognition of a common humanity. 

The second example (v.40) involves corrupt law courts: ‘if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well’. The basic attire of the day was two long robe-like garments, a lightweight inner one and a thicker, heavier outer one. Again, the rebuttal makes it sounds as if Jesus wants passivity, but Jesus is not asking people to be doormats. If a person needed a loan and was so poor that they had no collateral, it was permissible, under the Law of Moses, for the lender to take the outer garment as a pledge – but it had to be returned at sundown so that the person could sleep in it. However, some courts had begun to side with the rich, suing the debtor for the outer garment. Jesus’ suggestion of offering both garments to cover debts left the debtor naked; a shameful act, not for the naked but for those who looked upon them. By gifting both garments the shame of the situation moved from the debtor to the lender. 

The third example (v.41) involves the Romans. By law Roman soldiers were allowed to ask the inhabitants of the countries they occupied to carry their heavy packs for them for the distance of one mile. However, to ask that they carry anything further was prohibited, and resulted in disciplinary action. By offering to carry the pack an extra mile, or at least attempting to do so, the carrier effectively demands that the Roman to take the pack from them, thus reversing the powerplay at hand.

In each example, Jesus does not deny the law, but he asks for a new understanding of it challenging the power structures of the day in defense of the poor. Transformation is possible, not only without violence, but by using the law to critique itself. This would have been significant to Matthew’s community who were contemplating their future: would they remain part of a system that advantaged the rich and powerful, corrupt legal systems and Roman domination? Or would they accept the teachings of Jesus and act to end these cycles of bondage?

Verse 42 finishes this section by asking people to be selfless and generous, ‘Give to the one who asks you’ and ‘Do not turn your back on the one who wants to borrow’. Both of these sayings speak against the idea of hoarding money, potentially gained through being the instigator of the exemplary actions above, and instead suggest that we return resources to those who need them the most – feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and healing the sick.

In the verses after this passage Jesus will go on to extend his teaching on relationships to include loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you (Mt 5:43-44)

b. The context of this text within the Gospel

Prior to this teaching block in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been travelling through Galilee proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every sickness and disease (Matt 4:23-25). This text is part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), the first ‘teaching block’ of Matthew’s gospel.

After the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12), the sermon contains 14 statements. Matthew’s community, rich in Jewish tradition, would have seen the significance of 14 (2 x 7, in Jewish tradition, 7 is the ‘holy’ or ‘complete’ number) being chosen by Matthew and recognise them as ‘something of God’.

Questions for the teacher

What am I wondering about the text?
What of this information is important to share with the students?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text?
What might they already know about (from their study of literacy)?
What might they wonder about?

(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?