Lex talionis, commonly called “an eye for an eye” is one of the most ancient laws in the world, going back into the Babylonia period. It is based on the principle of limited retaliation. A law court could prescribe a penalty equal to the injury but no more. It was never intended as an opportunity for getting even and then some.
Jesus points to the Old Testament use of the principle (Exod. 21:24) and tells his listeners that while limited retaliation was the acceptable principle in earlier times now that the Kingdom of God is breaking in, retaliation is being replaced with non-retaliation. “You have heard that it was said” marks a new era in which followers of Jesus simply will not retaliate for injury. In Matt, 5:38-42 Jesus provides three examples: If slapped on one cheek, you are to turn the other; if someone wants your suit you are to give him your coat as well; if he forces you to go one mile, go with him for two.” Original context gives a bit of color to the examples. To be hit on the “right check” suggests a backhanded slap (assuming the offended was not left-handed). Rabbis held that such a blow was doubly insulting. A man’s chiton was his under garment (“shirt”) and his himation was his outer garment (“coat”). Jewish law held that no one should be deprived of their coat in that it served as a blanket at night. Ancient armies used to force peasants to carry their gear so what Jesus is saying is that if someone makes you carry something for a mile, carry it for another mile.
We normally understand the principle of non-retaliation on a personal basis, but originally lex talionis was to be carried out in a court of justice. What Jesus is saying is that on a personal basis there is to be no retaliation at all. You don’t slap the slapper or take from the taker. You give the slapper another cheek to slap and you give the shirt thief your coat as well. One might ask, “Do you actually mean what you are saying? If a person demands your clothing would you in fact give him your winter coat as well? What if your children were watching? Would you want them to see such a week-kneed response? The answer is Yes, Yes, and Yes. Then I would do something else; I would point out that my reaction to that little encounter is what Jesus would have done. When I don’t respond in anger I am saying that I choose to live on a higher plain. I would explain that Jesus could have retaliated against those who were mocking him, then abusing him, then killing him, but in the kingdom of God people live by the values of that kingdom. Genuine strength is seen in controlling one’s natural reaction to get even. The higher ethic is not to do what the “old man” would do but to respond as Jesus would. Followers of Jesus act like Jesus.