“You have heard it was said, ’Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Mt 5:38-9)
Some have argued that Jesus is not repudiating Scripture, but merely human traditions, in his famous “but I say to you” teachings in Matthew 5. This is arguably true for all his other repudiations, but not for this one. The “eye for eye” command is given three times in the OT (Ex 21:24; Lev 24:19-20;Deut 19:21), and in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the instruction is not merely about violence that is permitted, as I’ve heard many argue, but about violence that is required.
In fact, this “eye for eye” principle is called the lex tallionis (law of retaliation), and it’s at the foundation of all the laws of the OT that require violence against perpetrators. Yet Jesus repudiates this principle and replaces it with his teaching to never “resist [anthistēmi] an evil person” (which, by the way, means that we aren’t to respond to aggression with aggression, not that we’re to do nothing).
What makes this even more amazing is that Jesus goes on to expound on his command on how to treat aggressors by saying,
“I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt 5:44-45, emphasis added; cf. Lk 6:29-36).
While the OT allowed for, and even required, retaliation, Jesus commands us to instead love and pray for our enemies. (In Luke 6 he adds “and do good to those who hate you” [vs 27]). Rather than to ever respond to violence with violence, we’re to instead love like the sun shines and like the rain falls – namely, indiscriminately. Whether the person is a friend or life-threatening enemy, we’re to love and bless them. And Jesus makes our willingness to love like this a precondition for being considered a child of our Father in heaven – “that you may be.” By the standards of Jesus’ teaching, therefore, anyone who obeyed the OT laws requiring violence could not be considered a child of the Father in heaven.
It’s also important we notice that Jesus never qualifies who the “enemies” we’re to love are (nor does Paul in Rom 12:14-21). Indeed, his instruction to love indiscriminately rules out any possible qualifications. What makes Jesus’ teachings even more radical is that any talk about “enemies” to a Jewish audience in first century Palestine would immediately call to mind the Romans – the ones who unjustly oppressed, abused, and often randomly killed the Jewish people. Jesus’ command to love enemies and to never respond violently to them thus includes the very worst kind of enemies we can imagine: the kind that threaten us, our country, and/or our loved ones. It includes the kind of enemies people naturally feel most “justified” killing, if they need to, in order to protect themselves. But these are precisely the kinds of enemies we’re to always love and never retaliate against.
As radical as this teaching might sound to us, however, I don’t believe it should surprise us that we’re commanded to love this way. For God loved us…when we “were yet enemies,” (Rom 5:10) and we are commanded to “imitate God” by living in this same kind of love, “just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us” (Eph. 5:1-2).
To sum it all up, in this passage Jesus is doing nothing less than telling us that our willingness to set aside a violent OT law in order to obey his new command to love and refrain from violence toward even the worst kind of life-threatening enemies is a precondition for being considered a child of God.