Jesus gives four examples of how his principle of non-retaliation may be applied.
If anyone slaps your face. This is likely a backhanded slap and would have been considered an insult to one’s honor. According to the Mishnah, the penalty for slapping someone with the open hand was 200 zuz, if it was a backhanded slap, the penalty was 400 zuz (b.Kam 8:6, cited by Quarles, Sermon, 149. A zuz refers to “non-Jewish small silver coinage” according to David Instone-Brewer, Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament, 201). A dinar and a zuz are used interchangeably in the Talmud. The Luke parallel uses a more violent verb (τύπτω) which can have the sense of an assault (Luke 6:29).
If anyone sues you and takes your tunic. Both the Jewish and Greco-Roman world were plagued with frivolous lawsuits. Jewish practice allowed someone to take a person’s chiton (χιτών), “a garment worn next to the skin” (BDAG) and were valuable enough to be used for bartering or making payments. The tunic (ἱμάτιον) was refers to one’s outer apparel. If the person was poor, this cloak served as a blanket. The Torah specifically forbids taking a person’s cloak as a security (Exod 22:26-27; Deut 24:12-13).
If this were to be followed literally, then the disciples would leave the courtroom naked! Keener says this is a “shockingly graphic, almost humorous, illustration” (Keener, Matthew, 198). But Quarles does not think this is hyperbole, pointing out it is unlikely a person only has one set of clothes (Quarles, Sermon, 153). He argues this saying urges the disciples are to pay what is fair and offer more in compensation when they are sued.
If anyone asks you to go a mile. The idea of going the “extra mile” is often applied to doing more than is required. In the context of the first century, Roman soldiers had the right to force people to do menial tasks, Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross of Jesus, for example. There is sufficient evidence to show that Roman soldiers sometimes forced Jewish people to carry burdens normally carried by pack animals, and sometimes this happened on the Sabbath (NewDocs 7, 85-87).
This kind of de-humanizing oppression is in the background of the Jewish rebellion only 30-35 years after Jesus was crucified. Jesus is reversing the typical response to an oppressive authority, do more than is required!
If anyone asks you for something. Leviticus 25:35-38 requires people to take care of a person who is in desperate need and there are many texts in the Hebrew Bible and the literature of the Second Temple Period to show that alms giving was a standard practice of a righteous person. This goes beyond alms since a person may ask for a loan. To turn away from someone (ἀποστρέφω).
It is possible Jesus refers to giving of gifts to the extreme poor and loaning without the expectation of returns as counter to the practice of giving gifts in order to gain favor with wealthy and elite people. Quarles suggests this as a way to connect the example to the principle of non-retaliation (Sermon, 157). If someone elite person is oppressing a disciple, perhaps a gift would change their attitude.
In Sirach, gifts and loans are to be given only to people who deserve them, and not to the “sinner.” Although this text does not define the sinner, Jesus’s practice of eating with “sinners” shows his ministry targeted those people Sirach would not have given any gift or loan.
Sirach 12:1–7 (NRSV) If you do good, know to whom you do it, and you will be thanked for your good deeds. 2 Do good to the devout, and you will be repaid— if not by them, certainly by the Most High. 3 No good comes to one who persists in evil or to one who does not give alms. 4 Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. 5 Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. 6 For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. 7 Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner.
Is Jesus saying his followers ought to give away all their possessions to the poor and live a life of voluntary poverty? This is exactly what they did in Acts 24:32-35 (and illustrated in Acts 4:36-37, Barnabas sells property to give to the disciples; Acts 5:1-11, Ananias and Sapphira; Acts 11:27-30, the gift from Antioch to Jerusalem, and the Pauline Collection contributed to these Christ followers, Gal 2:10).
As he did with murder and adultery, Jesus sharpens the Mosaic Law by saying that the follower of Jesus ought practice meekness and not always demand his legal rights. Under the “eye for an eye” principle, if someone slapped you, you were legally able to slap them back, and under Roman law you were required to carry the pack for a mile, no more.
Jesus says: “do not retaliate.” Let them hit your other cheek as well, and do not stop at one mile, go two miles. This has caused problems for centuries because people want to equate this to a literal command, Jesus is employing a metaphor here as he has in the earlier sections. The essence of the teaching is do not retaliate or harbor a grudge. If someone harms you, do not harm them. Jesus has already said “blessed are the peace-makers.” It is impossible for a peacemaker to seek revenge.
Jesus is not making a new legal ruling or re-interpreting the old legal principle in a new and radical way. He is contrasting the legal principle with an ethical principle. He wants his followers to be different from the world. The true disciple is to be light in the darkness, they are to be the peacemakers, the righteousness seekers.
The fact that the courts are to defend the rights of widows and orphans indicates not everyone ought to “turn the other cheek.” Jesus is not saying, “Sorry old widow lady, people have oppressed you, but you are supposed to turn the other cheek.” No one would recommend an abused child “turn the other cheek,” the abuser ought to be held accountable for their crimes. Nor would anyone think every Christian ought to sell all their property to give to the poor so that we like naked under a bridge.
If we read this principle in the context of Jesus’s followers, they have been told they will be persecuted on account of their association with Jesus. They will be slapped and have their property confiscated because they stand with Jesus. They are not to retaliate against this persecution.
By way of contemporary application, how does the individual Christian set aside a “right of retaliation” in contemporary western culture?