You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. (Matthew 5:38-41)
The Gospel commands related to love are really difficult to obey, at least as long as we hold on to the values of this world rather than those of God’s Kingdom. Even the most ardent biblical literalist often assumes the command to turn the other cheek and not resist an evil person have to be taken within reason or are ideals that can only be accomplished when life is going well. Otherwise, Christians would find themselves frequently beaten up and always as martyrs. Is that what Jesus really intended? The martyrs and confessors thought so.
Christians today at times prefer retribution and revenge as forms of godly justice despite what Christ taught. We demand the mythical creation stories be understood literally but then turn Christ’s direct commandments into ideals for which there are plenty of reasons to avoid obeying literally. Christians often prefer the image of justice carrying both the scale and sword rather than of Christ carrying His cross.
St John Chrysostom comments that maybe we have mixed things up a bit. The Old Testament may have allowed an eye for an eye in dealing with others, but Christ says the only eye we should pluck out is our own when it causes us to sin. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire (Matthew 18:9; see also Matthew 5:29 – many Christian scholars say when Christ repeats the same teaching it means He emphasizes it). The Old Testament may have allowed revenge as a form of justice, but Christ leads us to a new way of dealing with sin – we are to rid ourselves of sin rather than attempting to rid others of their sins or, worse, of getting rid of others who sin against us. Chrysostom writes:
You see, while there is nothing remarkable for anyone in the age of grace to be found free of resentment, forgiving enemies their sins and sparing abusers – that is, after the death of Christ, after such wonderful forgiveness of sins, after the directives redolent of sound values – in the Old dispensation, by contrast, when the Law permitted an eye to be plucked out for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and vengeance to be taken on the wrongdoer in equal terms, who amongst the listeners is not struck by someone found to surpass the norm of the commandments and attain to New Testament values? Is there anyone of those failing to imitate him whom he would not show devoid of both pardon and excuse? (OLD TESTAMENT HOMILIES Vol 1, pp 10-11)
Following Old Testament values may have been proper in Old Testament times, but we are living in the age of grace. Many Christians love being freed from the constraints of the Old Testament Law, but revenge and retribution also belong to those old ideas which have been superseded by Christ. The Old Testament Law is no longer the height of morality, but represents an antiquated way of living and is certainly not the values of the Kingdom which is to come.