Eye for an eye. It’s a biblical statement that many have borrowed when it has suited their purposes, whether they believed the Bible or not. It’s a principle that is indeed good, but it is not to be misused. The Savior said to His disciples,
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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. – Matthew 5:38-39
The Savior was quoting a law given in the Old Testament in a few different places, and the law is not bad at all; it’s good. In fact, the principle should continue in our criminal justice systems today: the punishment should fit the crime—not more severe than necessary and not less. But this law was just for that purpose: civil and criminal law. The commandment was not given to individual people, but for the law enforcement of Israel, if you will. It seems as if the people, perhaps the Pharisees especially, had applied it to their own personal dealings, and the Savior taught against that.
No, Christians are not to apply “eye for an eye” in their personal interactions (except, perhaps, when disciplining children). The Savior says not to resist the one who is evil. Now, we mustn’t take this teaching too far. The Savior Himself was resisting the Pharisees as He taught. But He expands on this in a few ways, beginning with our verse above.
He says that if anyone slaps you on the cheek, you ought to turn to him the other also. The Savior uses this physical act of violence to represent any wrongdoing done to us in general. It’s not only for when someone insults you with a slap; it’s for any kind of evil done to you.
The Savior’s point is not to condone or reinforce bad behavior, but rather to not fight fire with fire. Instead, you fight fire with water. You show kindness when you are shown wickedness, and this is the characteristic of those who are the salt and light that the Savior described earlier.
Christ’s Apostle, Paul, would later reinforce this in Romans 12, where he instructs the Roman Christians to repay no one evil for evil, to not be overcome with evil, but to overcome evil with good. He tells them that if you bless those who persecute you, you will heap judgment on them. This is, essentially, what Jesus is teaching in our passage.
So, when someone wrongs you, your immediate reaction should not be how you can get even with that person. While, yes, evil must be addressed in many cases, whether that’s calling the police or beginning church discipline. But your personal response should be that of kindness.
We’re reminded of the case of Dylann Roof, the young man who massacred churchgoers out of hatred. Family members lined up to tell the apathetic Roof that they were praying for him and that they forgave him. That was a stunning display of this principle. And if Roof were not deranged, he may have broken down in sorrow on the spot.
Remember also that though the Savior’s cheek was struck, He turned the other one, to the point of dying on the cross for sinners like us. And though we have insulted God innumerable times in our lives, He has shown us immeasurable mercy and grace. May we extend such love to others.