Jesus abolishes legal redress
Jesus then turns to the core principle of the law of Moses concerning response to general wrongdoing:
‘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.‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Mat 5:38-47)
To understand this teaching it is necessary to clearly understand the law of Moses that Jesus quoted. The application to false witnesses has already been discussed: the legally sanctioned application of violence, up to and including taking the life of the false witness, as a means of getting the witness to be more likely to tell the truth. However, this is but one example of a general principle of the law of Moses and how it provided remedies for breaches of the law that caused loss or injury:
‘If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.‘An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth. (Ex 21:22-27)
This text shows that the application was legally sanctioned violent remedies for cases of injury or loss caused by the breach of the law by a party. It also shows that the references to the legally sanctioned taking of eyes and teeth etc. refer to financial compensation – the slave’s freedom is a financial remedy in his favour, not the mere emotional satisfaction of causing equal loss to the lawbreaker while his own estate remains insolvent. However, for life, no financial compensation was accepted in place of the life of the murderer (Num 35:31).
This is also made clear from the third place the teaching is found:
‘“Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution – life for life. Anyone who injures their neighbour is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death. (Lev 24:17-21)
We may therefore summarise the law of Moses on this point as representing the concept of legally sanctioned but legally limited violence. The legally sanctioned violence is recognised as being a danger, resulting in clear legal limitations on the quantum and manner, and extensive legal safeguards to reduce the danger to the innocent. An example of this is the evidential requirement for two eyewitnesses:
One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offence they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Deut 19:15)
In light of this analysis of the law of Moses, we can see that Jesus abolishes the concept of legally limited violence as the remedy for breaches of the law. He does not ask for better safeguards, he does not abolish it de facto by excessive procedural requirements; he abolishes it de jure as one handing down a new law for society from his Father in heaven.
In abolishing the old, Jesus also teaches the new law of response to law-breaking: ‘do not resist an evil person’ Jesus is prohibiting resistance to evildoers in response to the evil they do. The word translated resist means ‘oppose, resist, stand out against’ and implies a visible and conscious response of force or power, generally of the same or similar character as the action being resisted. We may not return insult for insult, blow for blow, wound for wound, suit for suit, bullet for bullet or bomb for bomb. We may likewise not return one form of evil for another, in particular we may not resist an insult, injury or unpaid debt into a suit for money damages or action for coercive takings of property to satisfy debts.
Having prohibited violence, lawsuits and returning evil for evil, what options are left? One can simply accept the evil and even condone or defend it. However the examples Jesus gives show that there are non-violent ways of protecting one’s honour and using shame and appeals to honour to uphold righteousness. Creativity, generosity and fearlessness are required to uphold right in the face of evil, resort to litigation or violence are not.
The first case is a humiliating back-hand slap to the right cheek, used by the strong to put the weak in their place, or to insult someone in anger (the left hand was not used). This is the third time Jesus refers to insult as a ground for litigation, 5:11 is the first and verses 21-26 the second. Turning the other cheek indicates both a rejection of violence as a response and a rejection of the humiliation. By presenting the left cheek one rejects the humiliation and invites the strong person to treat you as an equal – at the risk of being punched with the right hand as one would fight an equal. Jesus forbids litigation in general, so he necessarily forbids litigation over insults.
The second case is a lawsuit over debt-enforcement against the underclothes of a person. (Outer-clothes were protected by the law of Moses from attachment for debts, but underclothes were not.) Having abolished the oath and the court for its violent remedies, lawsuits and debt enforcement procedures are then seen as species of violence themselves, evils. The particulars of this example provide an opportunity to shame the judgment creditor and to reveal to the judges and the creditor the merciless behaviour they are approving of and doing: by giving him the outer clothes in addition to the underclothes the judgement debtor is reduced to nakedness, shaming the judge and the creditor, and demonstrating to them the nature of what they are doing to themselves by their conduct. The specifics of the case also strain credulity: second hand underwear today are worthless and even then were probably worth less than the costs of going to court, getting a judgment and enforcing the judgement; thus the case is suggestive of a merciless, vindictive creditor.
The third case is a kind of forced service imposed by Roman soldiers on hapless non-citizens, requiring them to carry their gear for up to 1 Roman mile. The 1 mile limit was introduced to stop fomenting rebellions against Rome. By carrying the gear more than 1 mile, the one forced to carry it could make the Roman soldier feel ashamed for oppressing him and worried that he would get in trouble for breaking Roman law.
The final case relates to our response to being forbidden to litigate and to enforce debts. Jesus abolishes debt enforcement not because debts are necessarily invalid but because, first: enforcement itself is an evil means even if the debts are valid, and second: unenforceability of debts means that all invalid debts can be dishonoured, permitting release at the debtor’s honour and discretion. The law of Moses provided for regular debt cancellation as a means to limit oppression, particularly of the poor. It also provided a teaching about commercial treatment of the poor and vulnerable in connection with such cancellation:
If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards them. Rather, be open-handed and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbour this wicked thought: ‘The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near,’ so that you do not show ill will towards the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land. (Deut 15:7-11)
This final case alludes to this part of the law of Moses as applicable in the case he presents, and it suggests a similar context: prohibition on litigation and debt enforcement are similar to periodic debt cancellation, and so has the same application and focus on protecting the poor and vulnerable.
However, Jesus takes things further by enjoining the same generosity towards our enemies:
And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:34-36)
The next part deals with treatment of friends and enemies. Although the law of Moses requires us to love our neighbours it does not explicitly state we are to hate our enemies. In fact it teaches we should do good to those who hate us (Ex 23:5). Yet, in a very real and practical sense, such teaching is a dead letter, while, on the other hand, there are detailed and effective provisions for channelling hatred of our enemies through the legal process that visits sanctioned violence on them. This can be clearly seen in the laws comparing accidental deaths with murders:
‘“If anyone strikes someone a fatal blow with an iron object, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death. Or if anyone is holding a stone and strikes someone a fatal blow with it, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death. Or if anyone is holding a wooden object and strikes someone a fatal blow with it, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death; when the avenger comes upon the murderer, the avenger shall put the murderer to death. If anyone with malice aforethought pushes another or throws something at them intentionally so that they die or if out of enmity one person hits another with their fist so that the other dies, that person is to be put to death; that person is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when they meet.‘“But if without enmity someone suddenly pushes another or throws something at them unintentionally or, without seeing them, drops on them a stone heavy enough to kill them, and they die, then since that other person was not an enemy and no harm was intended, the assembly must judge between the accused and the avenger of blood according to these regulations. (Num 35:16-24)
But if out of hate someone lies in wait, assaults and kills a neighbour, and then flees to one of these cities, the killer shall be sent for by the town elders, be brought back from the city, and be handed over to the avenger of blood to die. Show no pity. You must purge from Israel the guilt of shedding innocent blood, so that it may go well with you. (Deut 19:11-13)
There is one law for the enemy and one for the friend. The friend is forgiven for killing, the enemy for the same deed is hated and that hatred is permitted to kill the enemy by the law and its regulations.
This thought is also found in the Psalms:
Those who hate me without reason outnumber the hairs of my head;many are my enemies without cause, those who seek to destroy me.I am forced to restore what I did not steal. (Ps 69:4)
David is apparently saying that the law uses force to require restitution for theft (e.g. Ex 22:3), and that this would be a proper reason for them to be his enemies and hate him and to use the law against him – his complaint not that the law allows his enemies to hate him and do violence to him, but that they are his enemies without cause. Proper cause makes hate and violence proper, according to the law reflected in David’s view.
In the same way that Jesus summarised correctly the law of Moses with the words ‘anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’ (Mat 5:21) he also summarised correctly the law of Moses with the words ‘hate your enemy’ (Mat 5:43). When the law of Moses says to do good to your enemies, it is an exhortation for us to do supererogatory works, while still being entitled to hate and to channel that hate through the legal process that, on adequate cause and evidence, entitles us to use violence to enforce payment or even to kill.
Jesus changes the law of Moses in this respect: the entitlement to channel hate through the legal process is abolished.
Jesus offers no reforms to the standard of evidence, no court-room procedural reforms, no re-calibration of damages or penalties, no compassionate reforms to improve debtor protection, no new classes of protected assets, no bill of rights, no jury trial rights, and no tort reform. All these are concerns for those who uphold the principle of the law that Jesus abolished.The legal process is fundamentally one of discrimination between those who shall be protected from wrath and those who shall suffer it. But Jesus teaches a new law: protect all and condemn none. This is the law of love: it ‘always protects’ (1 Cor 13:7) and it ‘covers a multitude of sins’ (1 Pet 4:8), and it is the debt that is always due (Rom 13:8). We must extend our protection to those who our Father in heaven sends rain and sunshine to without discrimination, that we may be his children.