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Sermon on the Mount: An Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth

What are we to make of Jesus’ take on “An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”? Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount explains that there’s a better way forward than seeking retaliation in our relationships. 

It’s a familiar script. Let’s say I wrong you somehow. You can respond in one of two ways: (1) You can passively take it. In that case, you leave feeling like a victim, and I feel like, since it worked, I should keep doing it. Or (2) you can resist and/or try to “get even.” Oddly enough, if you do this, I would feel like this retroactively justifies my initial behavior. So then I’m going to resist and/or try to “get even” with you. In the end, we get locked in a tit-for-tat until kingdom come and trumpet sound.

The Eye-for-Eye, Tooth-for-Tooth Script

We could call this the “eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth” script. No version of this script takes us anywhere we want to go.

The saying Jesus quotes in Matthew 5:38, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” occurs not once, but at least three times, in the Old Testament (Ex. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:19-20; Deut. 19:21). Of all Jesus’ quotes from the law, this one looks the most like he’s flat-out saying, “Don’t do this any more.” But then, by his own account, he would be “least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19). Remember, he already set the ground rules. He said, as strongly as he possibly could, that he is not arguing against the law (Matt. 5:17-19).

“Folks are trying to keep the letter of the law while missing the heart.” 

Like every other “ancient saying” in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, folks are trying to keep the letter of the law while missing the heart. In this case, they do that by invoking a principle that wasn’t meant to apply to them in the first place. The passage in Deuteronomy specifically places the quote in the context of courts and judges (Deut. 19:16-21). Partiality and favoritism were a major concern in the Old Testament legal system (cf. Deut. 16:18-20). So God lays down a basic principle of justice that should apply across the board: the punishment must be proportionate to the offense—no more, no less. The rabbis quickly developed ways to quantify offenses and monetize the punishments, but the guiding principle stayed the same.

Jesus is saying that this may be a great principle for a judge, but it’s a terrible way to live your life. Since the examples Jesus gives in this paragraph are all from everyday life, let’s focus on that rather than on “just war” theories or how this applies to heads of state. How often do I worry about declaring war on someone? Less than once a week. I need to know what to do about the punk kids in my neighborhood who scream at cars and flip them off as they pass by. In this paragraph, Jesus tells us that if we view everyday relationships through the lens of what’s “fair,” we won’t come anywhere close to the heart of God.

“If we view everyday relationships through the lens of what’s ‘fair,’ we won’t come anywhere close to the heart of God.” 

So what is God’s heart, here? The summary statement is, “Don’t resist,” or, literally, “Don’t stand against” (5:39). So insisting on what’s “fair,” meeting aggression with aggression, clearly isn’t the correct response. On the other hand, Jesus isn’t saying to just passively give in. No, his examples go far beyond that. They involve actively giving extra. This is the biblical usage of gracean undeserved gift.

  • 5:39—If someone slaps you, then slapping them back is justice. Doing nothing is giving in. Offering the other cheek is grace.
  • 5:40—Fighting to keep your shirt is justice. Letting them have it is giving in. Offering your coat is grace.
  • 5:41—Refusing to carry the occupying soldier’s gear seems fair. (Rome says the soldier has a right to ask, but who cares about them?) Going the required mile is giving in. Going a second mile is grace.
  • 5:42—Keeping your stuff is fair (Matt. 5:42). Lending it is giving in. Not trying to get it back is grace.

God is a God of grace.

Going Beyond What Comes Natural

Grace is not easy. Perhaps more accurately, grace is not natural. One natural response is to guard against anything that threatens our reputation or self-esteem. In a shame and honor society, a slap in the face (5:39) is an intolerable insult. Since most people are right-handed, a slap on the right cheek is a backhanded slap. This is so insulting that the rabbis assigned it a much stiffer fine. The same could be said of being conscripted to carry the soldier’s stuff. It’s degrading. So the question is: where do we find our value? If our self-esteem is grounded in God, then an insult from some person kinda doesn’t mean anything. Our self-esteem is grounded on a different plane entirely.

Another natural response is to guard whatever gives us a sense of security. Losing your coat was a big deal for ordinary folks in the ancient world. A coat also functioned as a person’s blanket, so even if a lender took it as collateral, they couldn’t keep it overnight (Ex. 22:26-27). It’s not clear what a person would do without it. But Jesus says “do not worry” (Matt. 6:28-33) about your physical needs. If your security is grounded in something deeper than your possessions, then losing some of them doesn’t matter quite as much.

“Grace is only possible when we are grounded in eternity.” 

Grace is only possible when we are grounded in eternity. This gives us an inner strength not dependent on the things the people of this world think they can’t afford to lose. It gives us the strength not to retaliate, but to give. As Gandhi said, the non-violent response actually requires a far stronger person than the violent one does.

Now, we need to be honest that there are situations where this principle doesn’t apply. In those cases, the key question is, “Where is your heart?” This is where boundaries come in. It is entirely possible that we draw a boundary, that we say “no,” yet still do have a heart of grace. First of all, a boundary can be an honest appraisal that we really don’t have any more to give. Like it or not, we need to say, “No.” And it’s actually a good sign if we don’t like it. As Bonhoeffer puts it, we should always suspect that we might be better off if we followed Jesus in “single-minded obedience.”

Secondly, grace wants to help. But if the thing the person is asking for wouldn’t really help, then there isn’t any grace in doing it. (There’s no grace involved in, say, enabling an abuser. It doesn’t help them at all.)

“What if the opposite of ‘standing against’ isn’t ‘giving in’?” 

Let’s look at this a different way. What if the opposite of “standing against” isn’t “giving in”? What if the opposite of “standing against” is “coming alongside”? Instead of asking, “What is the fair response to the aggressor?,” ask, “Can I help this person?” Maybe that doesn’t fit letting someone slap you in the face. But it sure fits going to court: “You need clothes? Here, take it all.” Or “You need to get your gear all the way to Sepphoris? Here, I can go with you a little ways farther.” Or “You need to borrow something? Here, just take it.”

That is not how the “eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth” script is supposed to go. It is not one of the options. That’s the strength required by grace—the strength to act from your internal convictions, not from the role scripted out for you. It’s the strength to stand up and place the encounter on a different script.

Flipping the Script

Flipping the script is not intuitive for anyone involved. You can see this in the other peoples’ confused faces. You change the nature of what is happening. You are no longer functioning in the same roles. The other person is disoriented because they thought this was an adversarial encounter. But on the “grace” script, you are on the same team. (In fact, as a pro tip, you can literally use the words “we” and “us” to subtly indicate that you are now in this together.) Again, Gandhi said that the non-violent response is effective when the goal is to win the other person over. (Maybe this collapses “don’t resist” into “love your enemy” from the next paragraph; see Matt. 5:43-48. So be it. Luke scrambles the two paragraphs together, anyway; see Luke 6:27-36.)

I suppose I could have given those neighborhood kids a long, angry honk. Or I could have stopped the car and chewed them out. Instead, I treated them like what they were—neighbors. When I passed, before they could flip me off, I would smile and wave. After only a couple times, the ringleader found himself waving back. As Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21).

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” 

There’s no guarantee that this will always work. Maybe that’s one reason Jesus puts no emphasis on what happens to the other person. You don’t control them. You control you. You are in charge of the direction you take your heart. It’s your choice: Will you have a heart that is locked in the cycle of “justice,” or a heart that has been freed by grace?

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