Sitting at the Feet of Yeshua
We continue our quest to explore what I have been calling the Eternal Torah. We’ve looked at Yeshua’s teaching on murder, adultery, divorce, and taking of oaths. In this post, will begin to take a closer look at what Yeshua himself says about the fifth of six important topics contained in the Torah ~ retaliation & giving.
“You have heard that our fathers were told, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you not to stand up against someone who does you wrong. On the contrary, if someone hits you on the right cheek, let him hit you on the left cheek too! If someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well! And if a soldier forces you to carry his pack for one mile, carry it for two! When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something from you, lend it to him.” (Matthew 5:38-42)
Now this is certainly a passage that has had some really bizarre interpretations in the past. To properly understand what Yeshua is teaching to us in this passage, we really need to understand the context of the Jewish culture of the time.
Yeshua begins by citing the oldest law in the world – an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. That law is known as the Lex Talionis and may be described as the law of retaliation. It appears in the earliest known code of laws, the Code of Hammurabi, who reigned in Babylon from 2285 to 2242 BCE. The principle is clear and apparently simple – if a man has inflicted an injury on any person, an equivalent injury shall be inflicted upon him.
The original law of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ was actually a fair one. It kept people from forcing the offender to pay a greater price than the offense deserved. It also prevented people from taking personal revenge. This law was originally given to instruct judges in what punishment they should impose when judging their cases. Seen against its historical setting this is not a savage law, but a law of mercy.
This law became part and parcel of the ethic of the Tanakh. In the Tanakh we find it laid down no fewer than three times. “But if any harm follows, then you are to give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound and bruise for bruise” (Sh’mot 21:23-25). “If someone injures his neighbor, what he did is to be done to him – break for break, eye for eye, tooth for tooth – whatever injury he has caused the other person is to be rendered to him in return” (Vayikra 24:19-20). “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (D’varim 19:21).
The Jewish people never actually carried out this law literally in Israel. The Jewish jurists argued rightly that to carry it out literally might in fact be the reverse of justice, because it obviously might involve the displacement of a good eye or a good tooth for a bad eye or a bad tooth.
From a practical standpoint, the injury incurred was assessed a money value. If a person injured another, he or she was liable for monetary damages on five counts – for injury, for pain, for healing, for loss of time, and for the indignity suffered.
In regard to the injury, the injured person was looked on as if he or she was a slave to be sold in the market place. His or her value before and after the injury was assessed, and the man responsible for the injury had to pay the difference. He was responsible for the loss in value of the man injured.
In regard to pain, it was estimated how much money a person would accept to be willing to undergo the pain of the injury inflicted, and the person responsible for the injury had to pay that sum.
In regard to healing, the injurer had to pay all the expenses of the necessary medical attention, until a complete cure had been completed.
In regard to loss of time, the injurer had to pay compensation for the wages lost while the injured person was unable to work, and the injurer had also to pay compensation if the injured person had held a well paid position, and was now, as a consequence of the injury, fit for less well rewarded work.
In regard to indignity, the injurer had to pay damages for the humiliation and indignity that the injury had inflicted.
In actual practice the type of compensation that the law of retaliation laid down is still in effect today. These are still the areas of damages that can be imposed in civil damage claims for bodily injury in our own courts.
For us as Messianic Believers, Yeshua expands the old law of limited vengeance and introduces the new spirit of non-resentment and of non-retaliation. To take these examples as literal is to completely miss their point. It is, therefore, very necessary to understand what Yeshua is saying.
Yeshua says that if anyone slaps us on the right cheek we must turn to him the other cheek.
Now, suppose a right-handed person is standing in front of another person, and suppose he wants to slap the other person on the right cheek, how does he do it? Unless he is a contortionist, he has to hit the other person’s cheek with the back of his hand. Now according to Jewish Rabbinic law and our own culture, to hit a man with the back of the hand is an insult. So, what Yeshua is saying is this: “Even if a man should direct at you the deadliest and calculated insult, you cannot retaliate and you must not resent it.”
It doesn’t happen very often that someone will slap us on the face, but time and time again life brings to us insults. Yeshua is teaching us that the true Messianic Believer has to learn to resent no insult and to seek retaliation for no slight.
Yeshua goes on to say that if anyone tries to take your tunic or the shirt off of our back in a lawsuit, we must not only give him that, but also our cloak or coat. Again there is much more to this saying than meets the eye.
The tunic was the long, sack-like inner garment made of cotton or of linen. Even the poorest person would have a change of tunics. The cloak was the great, blanket-like outer garment, which a man wore as a robe by day, and used as a blanket at night. Normally, a man would have only one cloak. Now, it was actually the Jewish law that a man’s tunic might be taken as collateral, but not his cloak.
Consequently, what Yeshua is saying is: “A Believer never stands upon his rights; he never disputes about his legal rights; he does not consider himself to have any legal rights at all.” The Believer thinks not of his rights, but of his duties; not of his privileges, but of his responsibilities.
Yeshua then goes on to speak of being compelled to go one mile; and says that in such a case the Believer must willingly go two miles. In an occupied country, citizens could be compelled to supply food, to provide a room, and to carry baggage. Israel was an occupied country. At any moment, the Jewish people might feel the touch of a Roman spear on their shoulder, and know that they were compelled to serve the Romans. That, in fact, is what happened to Simon of Cyrene, when he was compelled to bear the Execution Stake of Yeshua.
What Yeshua is saying here is: “Don’t be always thinking of your liberty to do as you like, be always thinking of your duty and your privilege to be of service to others. When a task is laid on you, even if the task is unreasonable and hateful, don’t do it as a grim duty to be resented; do it as a service to be gladly rendered.” In short, do everything as unto the Lord!
In this passage, Yeshua is laying down three great rules – the Believer should never resent or seek retaliation for any insult; the Believer should never stand upon his legal rights; and, the Believer should never think of his right to do as he likes, but always of his duty to be of help others. The question is: How do we measure up to that ideal? Do we practice what Yeshua teaches? It’s not easy is it?
Let’s take a quick look at the last sentence on giving in this passage. Based upon the concept of the Sabbath Year, the Rabbis have given five principles, which should govern giving.
- Giving must not be refused. If a man refuses to give, the day may well come when he has to beg himself – perhaps from the very people to whom he refused to give.
- Giving must befit the man to whom the gift is given. D’varim says that a man must be given whatever he lacks.
- Giving must be carried out privately and secretly. The Jewish people would have regarded with abhorrence the gift that was given for the sake of prestige, publicity, or self-glorification.
- The manner of giving must befit the character and the temperament of the recipient. Giving was to be carried out in such a way that the manner of the giving was to help as much as the gift.
- Giving was at once a privilege and an obligation for in reality all giving is nothing less than giving to God. To give to some needy person was not something, which a man might choose to do; it was something he must do; for, if he refused, the refusal was to God.
Yeshua appears to ratify these practices. But are we to give indiscriminately? No. We need to use wisdom in our giving. But, we should remember that it is better to help a score of fraudulent beggars than to risk turning away the one person in real need.
In my next post, we will continue to unpack the sixth important topics contained in the Torah that Yeshua emphasized in Matthew 5 by looking at the issue of loving our neighbor.