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Is an ‘Eye for an Eye’ a Mandate for Retaliation?

Greg E. Gifford, PhD, CBC



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Martin Luther King, Jr., in quoting Gandhi, said, “That old law about an ‘Eye for and Eye’ leaves everybody blind.”[1] Jesus quotes this Old Testament law in Matthew 5:38 saying, “You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, (cf. Deut. 19:20-21; Exod. 21:22). However, the original intent of the law was not a mandate to retaliate. It was not a command to get even but a regulation of the punishment of a crime. In other words, the severity of the punishment should fit the severity of the crime committed. Therefore, this law was used as a means of upholding justice. It would be unjust to face a punishment that is disproportionate to the crime.

One other aspect of the regulation of the punishment is that it was to be an example to those who witnessed the crime. Deuteronomy makes it clear that the punishment should take place not only as a lesson to those who committed the crime but also as an example to those who are witnesses of the crime. A person thinks twice about committing a crime when they know the punishment for that crime was inflicted on another. So this original command had the intent of regulating the parameters of punishment and serving as a warning to those who would commit such crimes in the future. Yet again, the people of this time had seen it as a command to accomplish—they had missed the point. They had misconstrued this to be a command to retaliate rather than a command to define the terms of the punishment. Jesus doesn’t change the meaning of the original law that He cites—in the same way He didn’t change any of the previous Laws cited—He clarifies what that Law originally meant.

But I Say

39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. 41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. 42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” This first state that Jesus makes in verse 39 is that we are not to “resist evil” or what could also be translated as resisting a bad person. The phrase has the idea of getting into your Kung Fu stance against a person. Literally, don’t set yourself against them. There is this idea of actively opposing them.

Then Jesus depicts four different scenarios in which we could be taken advantage of. Look back in verses 39-42, He says:

  • Whoever will slap you on your right cheek (literally, the idea is of a backhand which was used to insult people).
  • Whoever will sue you and take your coat (or whoever would take your coat, give them your shirt too).
  • Whoever would compel you to go with him a mile
  • And whoever wants to borrow from you

In all of these instances, we would be the ones being taken advantage of. We are slapped, we are sued, we are compelled, and we are the lender. Now transpose how the Jews of this time were interpreting Exodus 21:24. “If someone slaps you, slap them back. If someone sues you and takes their coat, counter-sue them to take their coat.” That was the mentality of this time but Jesus reorients the understanding to the original intent of the passage. It’s not a mandate for personal retaliation but is a parameter for the punishment.

And Jesus’ command is to not actively oppose the bad person at an individual level. You don’t need to become an equalizer; you don’t need to become a vigilante.

But is Jesus saying we are to be punching bags? Are Christians allowed to practice self-defense, biblically? Because if you take this verse—and only this verse—it would seem that when people attack Christians the Christian must go limp, so to speak.

So are Christians given sanction to defend themselves in light of Matthew 5:39? There are some who believe that it is better to give your life, than to take another’s—even if it is self-defense because that is what would honor the Lord. Yet, that is not what Christ is talking about here. Christ is talking about retaliation, not self-defense. You see in our minds we automatically associate this verse with self-defense when, in reality, this verse is about retaliation when you are wronged. The Bible makes it clear that self-defense is not only wise, but also loving.

So is Jesus saying become the neighborhood punching bag? Or that self-defense is somehow off of the table? No, He is not. What Jesus is doing is showing the original intent of the law and condemning personal retaliation.

In each instance that Jesus states—slapping, suing, compelling, or borrowing—He follows up with refusing to practice revenge but allowing yourself to be mistreated:

  • Give them your other cheek
  • Give them your shirt too
  • Go two miles
  • Lend to them without hesitating

The big idea that Jesus is saying that Christians should be quick to forgive and refuse to retaliate. Or to use the words of Paul, “Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Cor. 6:7). In each of these above instances Jesus is showing that we are not mandated to take revenge but should often surrender our personal rights. Retaliation is never an option for us who are believers.

[1] Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations, 867.

"God may be looked upon in an absolute consideration, as he is in himself the best and most excellent being, wherein we behold the concurrence of all perfections, the most amiable and beauteous excellences, to an intellectual eye, that it can have an apprehension of." --John Howe, On Delighting in God
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