Dr. Yaconis’ article “Tooth for a Tooth” pointed out that phrase of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" is quoted from three places in the Old Testament. A careful examination of these verses in their context reveals that this phrase is dealing with the principle of proportionate retribution and compensation (a just punishment and restitution for wrong deeds). Jesus was not saying that proportionate retribution was evil, for to do so would be criticism of God. That which is written in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy was inspired by God and given to Moses so that Israel could be governed by a theocracy. Jesus never condemned this principle or any other.
The intention of proportionate retribution was not to sanction revenge, but to prevent the excess of evil and crime. Every society has to have these laws, or something similar, in order to survive because of the evil nature of man and Satan’s influence upon this age.
Willingness to Surrender Personal and Legal Rights
Indeed, Jesus is not condemning this principle as evil, nor is he setting forth an attitude of non-violent resistance, as it is often interpreted. What he is setting forth, using four examples, is how a disciple is not to retaliate with evil even though it is his personal or legal right to do so. In Matthew 5:38-42, the evil Jesus refers to is declared in each of the four examples: 1) someone insults you, 2) someone unjustly sues you for your personal belongings, 3) governmental abuses, and 4) someone asks of you or tries to borrow from you. All of these examples deal with an individual’s response to another’s wrongdoing directed at him or her.
Each situation describes an infringement upon a person’s rights or privileges. The natural tendency of the violated one is to react in a defensive or aggressive way. In their society, and ours also, they could invoke the principle of proportionate retribution by going to the law enforcers.
In the first scenario, the person "slaps you on your right cheek," the situation is one of insult rather than of physical violence. A blow such as this to an Eastern person in Jesus’ day was a sign of extreme contempt — the highest insult. Such an act was punishable, according to the Talmud (the authoritative body of Jewish tradition), by a very heavy fine. Therefore, what Jesus is opposing here is not brutality or even physical retaliation, but the principle of insisting on commensurate, legitimate retribution. "Even though it is your right to do so, let it go!"
The second example gives the proper response to someone eager for litigation which would deprive the disciple of his personal items — his coat. In Exodus 22:26 and 27, Moses specifically deals with the right that each person has regarding this very matter. Yet, Jesus is setting forth a radically unselfish attitude that surrenders one’s rights and property. Rather than getting involved in the law of compensation, give the person even more than he is trying to extort — give him your cloak as well!
The third example has to do with the Roman soldiers’ practice of commandeering civilian labor in an occupied country. According to Roman law, they had the right to make a civilian carry their belongings for one mile. The Judeans fiercely resented such impositions for they violated their "God-given, inalienable rights." Instead of resisting, resenting, or retaliating, Jesus’ instruction was extreme: "Go two miles!"
The last representation addresses an attitude of unselfish concern for others that goes beyond what is normal. Jesus’ disciples are not to be concerned with that which is rightfully their own but rather are to be concerned with sharing and caring for others.
The normal response to the evil assaults is to fight back, to resist evil by pleading our case for proportionate retribution. Whenever our personal rights are threatened or violated, the natural tendency is to defend and even attack back. Therefore, what Jesus demands is indeed radical and even revolutionary. His instructions on how to live were, and are, completely opposite to what most think and do. However, his teaching provides the only way to live above the evil influences of this current age and to enter into the Kingdom of God.
If we busy ourselves with justice or retaliation when we have been violated, our lives will be swallowed up with the affairs of this life. Often, when a person is concerned about just retribution, he is tempted also to engage in many ungodly attitudes. Pride, anger, bitterness, hate, and revenge are some of the sins that people bent on justice fall into. Jesus tells us to live above all of this by not being concerned about our rights, but rather by living in obedience to him and looking for the coming Kingdom.
Forfeiting personal rights when insulted is not the same as allowing oneself to be brutally beaten without self-defense. Yet, an extreme of this verse causes some to think that Christians are never to use self-defense, regardless of the consequences. Jesus is not talking about self-defense but rather the willingness to surrender our personal and legal rights for proportionate retribution when we are insulted. Nor is he saying that every time someone insults you that you "take it on the chin" without defending yourself. He often defended himself when he was attacked by the religionists. Read the heated discourse recorded in John 8. The Pharisees implied that Jesus was born of fornication. His response was, "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do." His response was not rooted in hate and revenge, or any other evil motivation. What he said, in his own defense, was true. Our Lord was never a doormat for the cruel critics to walk all over. He stood up for himself and defended himself by speaking the truth.
In the epistles, Paul often writes apologetics which are a systematic, argumentative discourse in defense. To conclude from Jesus’ exhortation that to turn the other cheek is never to use self-defense is an extreme and legalistic interpretation we want to avoid. The heart of the matter is to have a loving attitude which is willing to surrender personal rights in order to stay unencumbered with this evil age. The Lord’s life is our example of how to apply the things that he asks of his disciples.