Jesus and the Torah

Jesus and the Torah February 25, 2011

Matthew 5:38-42 contains Jesus’ famous words on the lex talionis, the law of retribution. Here are the words and then I have one reflection:

Matt. 5:38   “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;  40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;  41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

My reflection:

Perhaps the most neglected element in interpreting this text is what is said in the text Jesus is quoting, Deuteronomy 19:21.

Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

The judicial posture in the Torah for the lex talionis was this: “Show no pity.” To be sure, Israelites soon converted the equal retribution dimension of this law into financial fines but the stringent theme in all of the tradition was that justice was required, and the requirement was “show no pity” even if the punishment was converted into economic value. What a person has done wrong needs to be undone by doing that same wrong back to them.

But Jesus’ posture is the opposite and it cannot be seen as a form of exaggeration. His revolutionary preface, in effect, to the lex talionis was “Show mercy.” While he doesn’t say this explicitly when he quotes the Old Testament, his own words that form the antithesis are clearly a variant of “show mercy.” His words again are “Do not resist an evil person.”

Instead of prosecution and instead of exacting retribution to redress the imbalance of justice, Jesus forms another way: show mercy and unravel the system of retribution that pervades our society.

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  • Thanks for this insight, Scot. I regularly hear people suggest that human retribution is required for justice to take place. There are far-reaching consequences to this unraveling of the system of retribution.

  • Interesting look at it, Scot. Kurt Willems has been doing some posting on Non-Violent resistance recently and I believe he was also looking at that passage and the “do not resist” passage.

  • I appreciate your clarity here, Scot, when you say, “The judicial posture in the Torah for the lex talionis was…”

    This was never a matter to be carried out by one neighbor against another. This was a matter for the judges of the community to carry out, and in that context (and in that context alone) the “show no pity” statement makes redemptive sense. Both parties in the matter should be treated the same way.

    But as Jesus taught us, there is a higher law, and Non-Resistance is the clear implication of Lev 19:18 that he exposits in the SoM.

  • Derek

    Glen Stassen and David Gushee in their book Kingdom Ethics analyze this passage along with most of the sermon on the mount as consisting of triads.
    A statement of traditional righteousness: Matt. 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

    A diagnosis of a vicious cycle: “39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” They make a good case that a better translation is: “But I say to you, not to retaliate revengefully by evil means.”

    And then a teaching of a transforming initiative: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

    These initiatives are how a disciple responds without perpetuating the vicious cycle. Or as you say Scot, they are actions that “show mercy and unravel the system of retribution that pervades our society.”

  • Don

    So, what then, did G_d mean by an Eye for an Eye – if Jesus, being G_d – spoke against His own Law?

  • Jorge L

    Mercy only has meaning against a framework of strict justice. Jesus did not come to do away with strict justice. He said so.

    If justice is abandoned in the name of mercy, mercy is abandoned.

    Our culture selectively whomps away on “harsh justice.” What results is that whoever has most powerful control of means of communication gets to define who’s being harshly judgmental and BAD and who’s being merciful.

    The lex talionis, strict justice used to be engrained in lawyers and judges. But contemporary judicial philosophy at the highest level (I won’t name names) talks about wanting empathy embedded centrally in justice.

    That’s a recipe for disaster because the powerful will, in the name of empathy, subjective and thereby destroy justice. And then we have neither mercy nor justice.

    Instead, the older, “strict constructionist” view of, the law is the law is the law. If the laws are wrong and unjust, then change the laws. But don’t call for judges to follow personal whim or empathize. Let the legislature be sure to pass just laws and the judges be sure to enforce the just laws. And temper it all with mercy.

    But we’ve got it all confused and this post, interpreting the Sermon on the Mount in the way it does, suffers from at least some of that confusion.

    The Torah becomes a person in Jesus Christ (Ratzinger, citing Neusner, is good on this.) In God the Law is totally personal and totally just and merciful at the same time.

    We are not God. Jesus, in telling his people to be merciful was not thereby eliminating strict constructionist judging by human judges.

    The whole traditional concept of office and duty was a way to make the necessary distinction. But few people today have any notion of the concept of office or duty. We’ve subjectivized and personalized everything, including exegesis.

    And we’ll drown in the chaos this creates.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    One approach to this that our Mennonite brothers and sisters have pursued with some zeal is “Restorative Justice.” Rather than seek retribution, restorative justice seeks to restore relationship between victim and offender, which is what seems to be at the core of Jesus’ ministry.

    Howard Zehr has led the restorative justice movement within the Church. He draws on the following triad:

    1.When people and relationships are harmed, needs are created
    2.The needs created by harms lead to obligations
    3.The obligation is to heal and “put right” the harms; this is a just response.
    These are drawn from the site below.

    Here in Grand Rapids, our former city commissioner pressed for a trial of such a program in GR and got part of what he asked for.

    Randy G.

  • Robin

    I think it is clear that the two passages refer separately to judicial responses and personal responses by Christians.

    Take this passage for example: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.”

    I think it is borderline ridiculous to assert that “eye for an eye” was ever intended as anything besides a judicial sanction. Someone can correct me, but I don’t think OT Jews were running around, personally chopping hands off and poking eyes out whenever they were wronged. It wasn’t wild west vigilante justice. They brought the matter to court and eye and hand removal were judicial punishments.

    Similarly, it would be ludicrous to apply “don’t resist an evildoer” to whatever government is in place. Our legal system cannot just sit by and “not resist the evildoer” when someone goes on a killing spree, or sets up a gang to steal cars or sell crack to school children. The government can “resist” in ways besides cutting off hands, but it doesn’t have the option to “not resist the evildoer”

    Because of those reasons, I think the more meaningful applications of this passage come when an individual believer (1) wants to mete out the judicial punishments reserved for the state (2) wants to actively resist the evil-doer while the evil act is being committed or (3) wants the state to deliver the most sever punishment available under the law.

    There is a real sense here that if someone steals my property…I might need to just let them have it, or if they are caught I might not press charges or might agree to lesser sentencing in order to personally show mercy.

    Likewise, if someone kills/assaults my family, Jesus doesn’t want me tracking them down like a vigilante and might have me personally push for the death penalty to not be imposed, etc. But I don’t think there is anything in this text top suggest that the governments cannot have harsh laws to “resist” evildoers, only that the hearts of Christians shouldn’t long for such harsh punishments to be applied.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Don at #5
    The Eye for an Eye was first promulgated in Babylonian law in the Code of Hammurabi (1780 BCE). Its purpose was to limit deaths under the vendetta system whereby victims felt obligated to take the life of the offender or a member of his family. The eye for an eye limited retribution to an equal action if the offender was of the same social status as the victim.
    So one way to see the gap between God’s proclamation in the OT, and Jesus’ in the NT, is that the Mosaic law limited retribution in line with the laws of the ANE in its day. Jesus simply expanded such limits to include loving our enemies.
    Randy G.

  • Ann

    I understood lex talionis in the same light as Randy. It was actually a move toward more fairness than the Law of Blood Revenge which prevailed during that time. You have to interpret things in light of the culture and context of the time. I see a clear trajectory here, with Jesus pushing us further in the direction of showing mercy.

  • Sometimes (often times?) I am confused by what Jesus says here. I understand a move from “no pity” to “show mercy” in my personal life, to times when people wrong me on a day-to-day basis. What I don’t understand so much is how this is supposed to be applied, or if it is to be applied, on a governmental/judicial level.

    To expand Jesus’ example, if someone murders my brother, am I to say, “go ahead and take my other brother too”. That doesn’t seem reasonable. Also, how does this stack up with the idea of promoting justice? Allowing lawlessness as a society doesn’t seem like getting rid of injustice in the world at all, in face it seems counter-Kingdom.

  • Robin

    The original post seems to imply that Matt. 5:38-42 is an example of Jesus replacing a retributive judicial posture with a merciful judicial posture.

    Scot, Randy, Ann, etc., are you seriously contending that our JUDICIAL SYSTEM should be based on the following responses to violent and personal property crimes?

    “Do not resist an evildoer…turn the other (cheek) also…give your cloak as well…go also the second mile…give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you”

    Do anabaptists really believe that the proper governmentla response to assault of its citizens is to allow further assaults, all of which go unpunished, or that governments should have no laws protecting private property from unjust seizure or preventing quartering. Do we really believe that the government, as a matter of policy, should provide loans to all comers without any credit check or estimation of ability to repay, or that welfare should be handed out without any verification of poverty or family income?

    I know these are proper responses from individual Christians and from churches, but do you really think Jesus is providing his “theory of the state” and describing how governments should operate? If not, then why is it contrasted with the “judicial posture of the Torah” which was clearly directed towards government operations and not individual behavior.

  • Scot McKnight

    Robin it’s contrasted with the judicial system of the Torah because Jesus did.

  • Scot McKnight

    Robin, so I would ask you:

    Do you really think — a la Luther — Jesus would offer one ethic for his followers and one for the government, and here I’m talking about the government of his day? (We can extrapolate for our day.)

  • Aaron

    “Show mercy”. Jesus said it and we romanticize it. Has anyone here even examined what it means to “show mercy”? Mercy for who? The evil-doers, mercy for victims of evil-doers? How does that look?

    I don’t think mercy says let evil run rampant, unchecked, unpunished. I don’t think that’s merciful at all. I think that’s hateful and unjust.

    The punishment must fit the crime. That’s an-eye-for-an-eye. It has nothing to do with revenge.

    You know, when Jesus returns to set up His rule from Jerusalem, there’s gonna be a bloodbath. What do you do with that?

  • /amen

    And I am no longer astonished how so many read their own “common sense” into Jesus upside-down words. I understand there is a range of interpretation for a given text, but it sure seems culturally, we still resist many parts of the Gospel that make us uncomfortable. Of course, one set of folk then could say the same about failure to literal adherence to other clear cut admonitions.

    We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.

  • DRT

    I am not educated enough in the law to provide proof, but it seems to me that our judicial system tries to embrace Christianity. We believe that people can be reformed and we turn the other cheek and allow them back on the streets at times. We insist that people fill a complaint for someone to be accussed of many crimes, we don’t immediately punish just because the harm was done. We allow people to get off with a warning or community service when the crime was worse than a warning.

    The Jesus view not only puts an end to an eventual escalation, the OT does that too. But it provides a way for people to de-escalate the situation and I believe our governmental processes at least attempt to do that.

    Yes, our process allows a judge to show mercy.

    People can individually show more mercy.

  • Robin


    The ethic that Jesus offers for his followers prohibits self-defense, and it prohibits any punishment for assault. It makes possession private property impossible since we are commanded to turn over said property at any request. It requires that we accept quartering of troops, and prohibits any discernment be involved in acts of charity or money-lending.

    This isn’t just an overthrow of the death penalty, it is an overthrow of civilization if we really believe that Jesus intended us to apply this framework to all levels of government. A government that is prohibited from responding militarily when attacked, or from protecting its citizens from assault, murder, theft, etc. is not possible.

    One reason that I have the luxury of turning the other cheek when assaulted is that God has appointed a temporal government to punish evildoers if they take to striking me too frequently, or if they decide that since I am a Christian they can just kill me and none of my Christian family members or my Christian church will pursue them.

    And if you consider Paul, he didn’t inform magistrates that they needed to realize that even in their official capacities they needed to heed Jesus’ words to “Not resist an evildoer”, in fact he praised them because God put them in place to “bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

    The best case scenario for applying Matt. 5:38-42 to the role of the government is an anarchy, the worst case is much, much worse.

    Like I said above, I think that as a Christian this passage is applicable in my interactions with the law. If someone rapes and murders my wife maybe Jesus doesn’t want me to ask the magistrate to give them the death penalty. And if someone steals my car, maybe Jesus doesn’t even want me to press charges. Jesus’ mercy could lead me to have a very merciful attitude towards any number of criminal acts committed against me, but I think it is false to say that God wants a government which is prohibited from punishing evildoers, or which does any of the other things I listed above.

  • DRT

    Robin@18 says “This isn’t just an overthrow of the death penalty, it is an overthrow of civilization if we really believe that Jesus intended us to apply this framework to all levels of government.

    Yup. Wouldn’t it be cool!

  • Robin

    In short, I guess I agree that Matt. 5:38-42 has radical implications for my personal relationships, and even my relationship with the government when it comes to pressing charges, cooperating with police, etc. I just don’t think that Matt. 5:38-42 demands that Christians work for a justice system in which all criminal punishments are abandoned (Do not resist the evildoer).

    If we apply this text to the criminal justice system it doesn’t just get rid of “eye for an eye”; it gets rid of all criminal punishment for assault and theft, and has other strange implications for social safety nets and usury and credit laws.

  • Robin


    Are you really suggesting that governments shouldn’t be able to punish people, in any way, shape, or form, for committing assault or theft?

    That, since you are a Christian, I should be able to pummel you in broad daylight in Times Square with cameras rolling, and that not only should you turn the other cheek, but that police or other government officials should say “We are commanded to not resist the evildoer, so keep swinging away!” and that I should be able to beat you repeatedly with no fear of any criminal punishment.

  • Robin

    I do agree that “turning the other cheek” and “not resisting the evildoer” might mean that you allow me to pummel you repeatedly, but I think God has placed the magistrate to “punish the wrongdoer.”

    The police should charge me with assault and imprison me for some amount of time or fine me, actions which are prohibited if we apply “Do not resist the evildoer” literally to the government, and not just Christians and Christian churches.

  • Scot McKnight


    Fair enough. You’re a Lutheran when it comes to these matters — discipleship is private life, but there’s a government out there to manage affairs.

    What I see in your probings is an attempt to figure out how this all fits with federal government systems.

    Jesus is not talking about how to make the government better but what kingdom conditions look like. The challenge he gives to his followers is this: Live now in light of the kingdom.

    So, the politics of Jesus is a kingdom politics, and the church is called to embody that politic and show the world how God wants people to live.

  • DRT

    Robin, if Jesus would not give us the end state then he would be of little use. Could he have said “steadily decrease your retributive punishments until one day you will not need them as much because people will mature”?

  • Soren McMillan

    Scot @ 14,

    This is why many early Anabaptists saw a dichotomy between God’s will for the magistrate and His will for his followers. Their conclusion though was that Christians are not permitted to participate as magistrates. Under the “already/not yet” paradigm, the continuing existence of governing authorities are evidence that there are a whole lot of “not yet” realities in our world that are permitted and sanctioned by God.

  • Robin


    I get all of that, and maybe anabaptist don’t have a positive theory of government (what a Christ-influenced government should look like) just a negative theory (things government should not do like executing people and going to war).

    It is very confusing to me.

    I’m not sure about the federal comment.

  • Robin


    I don’t follow your comment at all. I agree that Jesus’ command to you, as I pummel you, is “Do not resist”; I do not agree that Jesus has also told the state “Do not resist Robin’s evil efforts to punish DRT”. I think Paul is scripture too, and Paul says the state is ordained by God to “punish the wrongdoer.”

    If a Christian policeman, or a Christian judge is prohibited by Jesus from arresting someone for assault (on another citizen) or from prosecuting a child molester, then maybe Christians shouldn’t be policemen or judges. I am much more comfortable with that scenario than christian policemen and judges who cannot arrest or prosecute criminals since that would be an example of “resisting the evildoer”

  • Jorge L

    This thread illustrates the incoherence of Anabaptism as embraced notionally by Hauerwasian wannabees. And I write that as a former Anabaptist who knows the sixteenth-century history of Anabaptism well AND the later Mennonite tradition which dumped precisely the incoherent aspects in order to survive. The later Mennonite tradition depended on magistrates, on Privilegia worked out by powerful rulers who needed immigrants to bring land under cultivation and therefore granted exemptions from normal civic responsibilities.

    You cannot pit Jesus wonderful call for mercy against his call for justice against evildoers. He called for both and you need to accept that. Yes, I know all about restorative justice and Christian Peacemaker Teams and so on and so forth. I know the whole late 20thc Mennonite intellectual apparatus, John Howard Yoder and Millard Lind and all the rest.

    And all of them either accept a role for retributive justice of one sort or another (and just opt out of participating in it) or live in la la land, in a fantasy world made possible by the relative security and stability we have known in Western Europe and America for centuries.

    I’m all for restorative justice programs as subsets of the court system IF hardheaded discernment is employed by magistrates to make sure that the innocent are protected from danger. If under the guise of showing mercy, someone is permitted to murder or harm the innocent, then the people responsible for that decision have done harm and perpetrated injustice. And they need to think hard about that.

    Parents and governments have God-given responsiblity for protecting the innocent. And they will answer for it. And intellectuals who sit in their chairs and post on the Internet about how wonderful it would be if everyone turned the other cheek and modeled Kingdom

    but who have not taken seriously the nitty gritty of how to protect the innnocent from wicked and dangerous people, in families, localities, nations

    are being irresponsible and will have to account to God for it.

    Mercy has no meaning if one has not established and done all one can to ensure justice for the innocent harmed by the wicked.

    Jesus had something to say about millstones, I think.

    Citing this passage from the Sermon on the Mount as a general paradigm for society in a fallen world is a kind of Fundamentalism, a kind of prooftexting fundamentalism. It has to be read, as any passage has to be read, in the light of the whole of Scripture and the NT is replete with the requirement that the unjust be punished and the innocent defended.

    Classically, in Christian history, those who renounced marriage and family and became eunuchs for the kingdom did so in part precisely because they thereby were free to be personally non-resistant and give their lives. It acknowledged that parents and governments do not have that luxury. Paul acknowledges this when he points out that being unmarried permitted him to sacrifice himself for Christ in a way that others could not.

    Having abandoned the varied vocations that sacrifice marriage and family and magistracy, as the vowed religious did, Protestants lost one way of taking account both of the sacrifical non-resistant mercy commands of Jesus and the requirement to uphold justice, defend the innocent, punish the wicked. Non-resistant monks and nuns understood that parents and magistrates upheld justice and defended them, that they could not live out their non-resistant vocations without the presence of justice-upholders and military defenders of the innocent.

  • Rick

    If we are to turn the other cheek, are we then to criticize the rebels for fighting back against the gov. of Libya?

    I mention this because the IMonk site has an interesting quote from J. MacArthur in which he does just that. I find that it fits into the issue of this post quite well.

  • Jorge L

    The 16thc Anabaptists denied that a Christian could be a magistrate. Only the wicked could be.

    If non-resistance is THE Kingdom way and and Christians are to model it for the rest of the world, then either they are modeling it for Christians who are magistrates and charged with justice and defense of the innocent (which is NOT the 16thc Anabaptist way but the post-16thc Mennonite way) or they are modeling it for non-Christian magistrates, for the wicked, to whom it is irrelevant.

    Notional Anabaptists today need to decide which it is. You can’t say you are modeling Sermon-on-the-Mount Kingdom nonresistance for government and civic leaders (and parents of children?) unless you admit that within Jesus’ Kingdom there is a role for justice and magistracy carried out by Christians. If so, then the passage from the Sermon on the Mount cannot be Jesus’s entire teaching on civil society and order. But then Robin is right and Luther’s Two Kingdoms or Calvin’s and the Catholic interaction between two swords, both of them truly Christian are all Kingdom ethics and the Sermon on the Mount in one way or another applies to a special vocation within civil society–either the monks and nuns and priest of Catholicism or the Mennonites as a privileged subculture living behind the justice and defense walls of the prince or state that tolerated them.

    The only way you can make this non-resistance into the totality of Jesus’ Kingdom ethics is to do some variant on the 16thc Anabaptist “exercising judicial power and and defence can only be done by the wicked”–perhaps some of them being less wicked than others, but all of them outside the kingdom.

    But the notional Anabaptists today don’t want to go there. They want to insist that true Christians would model nonresistant Kingdom ethics to the magistrates even while declaring them at least in some sense outside the Kingdom because they do exercise the sword. The 16thc Anabaptsts bit the bullet and took that line. But 21st century Progressive Evangelical Big Government Liberals are incoherent on this.

    This incoherence is why I am a former Anabaptist.

  • DRT

    Robin, sorry my thought is that Jesus also said to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. He recognizes that the Kingdom of God is here, but not yet. There is a present reality that we need to live with.

    But that does not diminish the target. When the KoG is fully here then the vision he said will be here. It is our job to bring that to fruition here and now, but it is not fully here yet.

    So yes, we need to be constantly moving our government and personal actions to be in conformance with what Jesus says. He is serious.

  • DRT

    Rick, without reading the iMonk post it seems to be a good question. I believe that it is difficult to put forth the hypothetical scenario that we would have a population of devout Jesus followers then given this current situation what should they do, rebel or not. A society that could contemplate the question at this time at that level would not be in the same position this society is in.

  • Susan N.

    I see the need for rules and consequences in society…for a judicial system which addresses criminal and civil offenses. My understanding of the “turn the other cheek” and related teachings of Jesus incline me toward restorative justice — as much as possible, merciful measures which seek to restore both the offender and the offended. I heard a terrific sermon on this set of verses last Sunday. The notion that, in turning the other cheek, giving the extra cloak or going the extra mile, one provides time and opportunity for the offended to “reframe” the dispute, diffuse anger and potentially lead to reconciliation and mutual restoration. Ubuntu… This way pushes me beyond my comfort zone and limits, but I still believe it is the better way, worth at least trying to live by. It’s the way God has treated me, the way Jesus lived, and the way I’d want others to treat me, after all.

  • Robin

    Does anyone happen to know whether or not most of the old school anabaptists were postmillenial or not?

    If Christ set up a 1000 year earthly reign (prior to creation of the new heavens and earth) in which the “whole world” was Christian, then yes, with 95% of people truly having new hearts an anabaptistic anarchy without a civil magistrate might indeed work. Absent the entire earth bowing at the foot of the lamb, principled anabaptists need a non-anabaptist government to ensure they don’t end up on the short end of the stick in a “Mad Max” scenario.

  • Ava

    What is the short end of the stick if “to live is Christ, to die is gain?”

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Robin and others re: Restorative Justice

    Regarding “restorative justice” and particularly Mennonite moves in this direction. Their move is not to remove punishment, but to see past the idea that we need first to punish people to “The most important thing is to re-establish the relationships that crimes violate.” In most restorative justice models, some punishment may be appropriate and necessary.

    Unfortunately my work in post-release situations reveals how broken our system is in that the only concern is punishment by imprisonment. Young men get out with no relationships, no job skills, and no money. So it is no surprise that re-incarceration rates without intervention are about 85%. A large part of the Restorative Justice program is not about mushy gentleness or Christianity, but a real attempt to fix a system that is by any measure at all broken.

    Randy G.

  • Linda

    There is no conflict, the Deuteronomy verse taken in context is for judges, and the Matthew verse in context is for individuals Christians. The Matthew verse is telling Christian to not take personal revenge, or do not take the law into you own hands.

    Context, context context.