“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and 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. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
I have pointed out many times here in the past that to the ancient Hebrew mind, God’s most notable attribute was restraint. In order for a person to follow Jesus Christ, the attribute he or she must have is restraint; that this is the key ingredient to our relationship with Him is no coincidence. In this paragraph, Jesus is making the same point as He runs through four illustrations of a self-denying restraint that seems radical by worldly standards.
The old Law had provisions for retribution, and the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth principle was intended to ensure that a person’s rights were protected, and that punishment fit the crime. However, history shows that this principle was not always followed in an evenhanded way, and by the time of Jesus, punishments for damaging other people were usually found in the form of monetary fines. From Jesus’ point of view, in the Kingdom these things were not really necessary, for our reliance should be upon God alone for justice.
The first example deals with insults, as a slap to the face would have been considered, as opposed to being a violent attack. Jesus did not respond to the insults hurled at Him; neither should we respond. If an evil person uses a court to take your property; let him have it. If you are compelled into labor, give extra, and always be ready to help those who need it. Far from announcing a series of specific commands or new rules and regulations for us to be legalistic about, Jesus is simply seeking to shift our focus from the physical things of this world, to a deeper and more significant focus on that which is above, and letting God be the judge who will bring about true justice to those who cause harm to others.
Some might suggest that this is a recipe for Christians to be doormats, but I see this as something quite different. I see this as Christians being called to great strength, for through all of this, we are called to rely not on our own ability to strike back, but upon the inner strength of God to overcome evil with good.
Have you read any of Dr. Walter Wink’s research saying that turning the other cheek is an act of defiance? This was a passage I always struggled with for exactly the reason you mentioned at the end of this post – I didn’t want to be a doormat. Now, I think this whole passage is actually calling us to nonviolent resistance. (I wrote about it, too – https://aliberalchristianreadsthebible.com/2019/05/19/matthew-538-42-an-eye-for-an-eye/ )