Read Matthew 5:38-48
Where to begin? These are some of the most discussed, interpreted, debated, and very frankly ignored scriptures in the New Testament.
They have been interpreted literally. If someone sues you and is awarded your cloak, then we throw in the coat at no extra charge.
They have been interpreted historically and culturally. That is, in the day they were written and within the Eastern culture, it was acceptable to strike a subordinate or a slave with the back side of the hand. This was a sign of dominance. Turning the other cheek to the senior offered a dilemma. Striking the cheek now presented would require the use of the left hand or the open palm. Left hands were used for unclean purposes and the open handed slap was something of a challenge to fight, such as in later years the slap to the face with a glove might demand a duel between gentlemen.
The exegesis continues with allegorical interpretations. The circumstances described represent how to respond to physical abuse, legal suits, government direction, and financial requests. Principles in each area can be extracted
The principles are good but sometimes a rough fit. Consider the admonishment to give not only your tunic but your cloak as well in today’s litigious society. Over twenty years ago I was in 29 Palms, California. Don’t confuse this with Palm Springs which is about an hour away and the hangout of the rich and pampered. I was at the Marine Base controlling a live fire exercise. Every few days we came in from the field to quarters on the main part of the base. Each room had a bed, a desk with chair, and a television. Do you remember rabbit ears? Your reception was dependent upon how well you could manipulate these small antennae.
Of course it didn’t matter much because all of the stations had terrible programming and all were sponsored by the same commercials: Sue somebody, divorce somebody, or come down off of drugs. California was truly a trend setter in pitting the nation against itself with legions of lawyers ready to do barrister battle on our behalf.
About ten years later, I was in the middle of government contracting. This was best value contracting. That meant the proposal evaluation included a review of the contractor’s ability to do the job, the price, and the track record of the contractor. I assigned review teams to these. They always made a good selection. I like to look at one more thing just to see if there were any red flags among the competing bids. I purposely left myself out of the evaluation process. That liberated me to look at one other thing: risk. I liked to know how large the legal department was at each company. A large legal department might signal a company looking to sue if they couldn’t perform he job, underbid, or just saw the government as an easy target. Taking the principles from the Sermon on the Mount as stand alone axioms just didn’t seem to fit in the modern world.
So how do we interpret these scriptures? I suggest we look at the last verse in the pericope.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus uses the word therefore to tie in what he is about to say to what he has been saying. So how do we interpret these teachings? As Jesus told us to, in the context of being perfect—being complete-as our Father in heaven is complete.
That brings us to the subject of Lex Talionis.
Yes, the term means the law of retaliation. That is the way of the world. To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect; we must adopt and internalize his ways. God’s way is to return love for hate.
What about judgment you ask? We deserved judgment, but we received Jesus instead and he took the penalty for our sin solely upon himself. We deserved wrath but we got love instead. That is the centerpiece of these teachings.
We are to be disciples of love even to the point of returning hate with love. That’s not natural for use. That is a divine quality. That’s a quality we need to be complete.
Instead of spending a lot of time figuring out how to equate turning the other cheek or going the extra mile in an entirely different time and culture, seek to return love for any other human behavior—including hate.
Love one another including your enemies.