You have heard that God said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I am telling you, do not stand against the one who harasses you. Whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other towards him also. And if some wants to bring you to court to take your shirt, allow him your cloak also. And if a Roman soldier forces you to be his porter for one mile, go with him for two. If someone asks you, give; and do not turn away from someone who wants a loan from you.
God’s Law is if course wise: it forbad unrestricted revenge. The wronged person is allowed to return a wrong provided he does so proportionately. (Although there are, for example in the book of Joshua, incidents where God commands unrestricted violence against the blameless Canaanites.)
Jesus’ teaching takes the example of a provocative slap on the cheek, the sort of blow which is intended to shame the victim or challenge him to fight. This is an interesting choice – he could have chosen many worse examples of personal violence. I conclude that he is dealing here with provocation to violence rather than a direct attempt to harm or kill. The other examples he uses seem to bear out this interpretation, Being sued for a shirt or commandeered by a Roman soldier or exposed to unwelcome requests for help, these are situations that might tempt to violence rather than life-threatening attacks. But he forbids standing against the ‘one who harasses you.’ The Greek poneros is often translated ‘evildoer’ which is too strong. The word’s core meaning is “annoyance, trouble, difficulty,” although ‘evil’ is possible. My translation is in line with my view that Jesus is dealing with provocation rather than serious assault.
So those who derive their Christian non-violence from this passage are wrong? Not at all. Here as in other instances of ‘God said….but I am telling you” he is reaching into the origins of wrong action rather than the actions themselves. He is commanding his followers to refuse provocations to violence, by giving a peaceful response which allows the aggressor to re-think his strategy. We know from his own response to deadly violence how far he was prepared to take this teaching.
The example of the Roman soldier is fundamental. A soldier encumbered with a pack might out of tiredness or brutality command one of the conquered Jews to carry it for him. Clearly this could lead to an angry response by any Jewish man, especially a young man, which could escalate into real violence where the Jew was unlikely to win. Jesus does not merely say, ‘grin and bear it,’ but suggests a way in which the victim can refuse victimhood, by freely going double the imposed distance. This person is then a free agent, and the Roman has to relate to him as such. This strategy was very different from that of a Zealot. When we think of Jesus ministry and teaching we must never forget that he lived in a conquered and occupied land.
In the example of being taken to court for your shirt/ tunic/ inner garment, there is humour. Clearly the opponent is taking things to extremes, but it does happen. But you surrender your shirt and your cloak, so that you are standing virtually naked in a public place. Will the judge be pleased with this result?
As for people who annoy you by demanding help or money, Jesus advises benevolence. Don’t be provoked to reject them violently but turn towards them with goodwill. I recognise the impulse to anger and violence, when I think of times that destitute people have caught and made demands of me. There’s a self-righteous component to this reaction: I’m busy, I give generously to charity, I vote for socially- inclusive policies, how dare this person embarrass me now! Jesus knew this dangerous nonsense so he just says, don’t turn away, but give.