You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. (Matthew 5:38-42)
Would you give a kid a handgun just because he asked?
Would you loan a depressed friend some sleeping pills just because she wanted to borrow them?
Of course not.
But what about giving money to panhandlers that we “just know” will use it for drugs or alcohol?
And does this passage mean that I can never protect myself in a lawsuit or that I can never tell a friend that I am unable to help him move his piano to his second story bedroom?
Does this passage mean that we are mostly just supposed to be pushovers and patsies for anyone who comes along?
Is that what astonishing generosity is all about? Or how do we apply Matthew 5:38-42 in the real world?
In his discussion of this passage that is behind this conversation on Astonishing Generosity, C.S. Lewis writes (In The Weight of Glory):
I think the text means exactly what it says, but with an understood reservation in favor of those obviously exceptional cases which every hearer would naturally assume to be exceptions without being told…that is insofar as the only relevant factors in the case are an injury to me by my neighbor and a desire on my part to retaliate, then I hold that Christianity commands the absolute mortification of that desire. No quarter whatever is given to the voice within us which says, “He’s done it to me, so I’ll do the same to him.”
I think Lewis, unsurprisingly, offers us wisdom here. This passage is not about just giving to give, it’s not about avoiding conflict or being “codependent”, it’s not about putting yourself at risk when you try to help someone or allowing someone to hurt themselves because you didn’t have enough backbone to say “no.”
It’s about answering evil with a positive act of retaliation. It’s about confronting oppressors (which is entirely what this passage is about) with the shamefulness of their crimes by standing up to them with generosity.
This section comes in the middle of a discussion where Jesus is giving illustrations to his disciples on what it means to be the “salt of the earth” or a “light set on a hill.” Especially in an environment of decay and darkness. Especially by the way they treat those who would ill-treat them.
But notice, that Jesus didn’t give a new law here. He is giving examples, not commands. (And, as Lewis points out, there will be exceptions that prove the rule.) He is training them in the ways of the Kingdom by pointing them to a radical, yes, astonishing way of living.
When a person strikes you on one cheek, in a demeaning act that is more insult than injury, instead of hitting back and escalating the violence, stand up to them and make them shame themselves by striking you on the other. If someone is suing you in court, to take your coat, then publicly demonstrate the injustice of their actions by giving them more and revealing to all that they are leaving you naked. If someone needs something from you, give it. Not out of compulsion or guilt, but out of freedom. If a soldier conscripts you into service as the Roman law allowed, give extra to demonstrate the freedom and generosity of a God who does not simply react to the injustices of the world, but instead responds with acts of generosity and love. Again, the point here is not some new set of laws that you must do in every case, they are examples of the kinds of people that we are to become.
It’s not about being a push over in the face of power; it’s about pushing back with love.