Most people today are familiar with the instructions God gave Moses for the punishment for criminal behavior in Deuteronomy 19:21: “A life for life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
The Law made provision for those who caused harm to others accidentally or unintentionally. But those who willfully, recklessly, deliberately violated God’s commandments and committed crimes against the community had to be punished – in such a dramatic way that it would deter others from following in their footsteps. (Deuteronomy 19-25)
But in the New Testament, Jesus made it clear that this law established to punish criminals was not license to hate or harbor bitterness and unforgiveness in our hearts. It doesn’t give individuals the right to pursue vengeance or retribution, to participate in or escalate violence.
Jesus explained, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. … I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:37-44)
Pointing to context, language studies, and other Scripture passages, Bible scholars tell us Jesus’ instructions should not be misinterpreted as a prohibition of self-defense. When a crime has been committed, legal authorities should be called. But when we are face to face with evil, own personal conduct should remain above reproach.
For instance, when someone insults us or slights us or tries to take advantage of us (figuratively “a slap on the cheek”), we shouldn’t respond to their bad behavior with bad behavior of our own.
Instead we’re to love and serve and give. And forgive. Like our Heavenly Father. Remembering that ultimately, it is His responsibility to settle the score. (Romans 12:19)