It appears that the common theme here (Matt. 5:38-48) is revenge. This first theme concerns the many commandments in the Mosaic law that are built on the principle of repaying a crime with an equal punishment, an idea called lex talionis, a Latin term meaning
law of retaliation.
As we see in a number of passages (Exod. 21:22-25, Lev. 24:17-21, Deut. 19:21), the law called for the offender to suffer the same experience as the victim. If the victim lost an eye, arm, foot, or life, the offender must also. This
law of retaliation was common among a number of ancient civilizations. Why not, since it seems to reveal a simple principle of justice?
It’s important to realize that this principle is there to limit retaliation, that is, to keep people from extracting more from a wrong done to them than they are rightfully entitled to extract. Thus, in many ways, this law was to ensure that justice was not perverted.
Therefore, in Matthew 5:38-42 Jesus was not necessarily attacking the legitimacy of a law that demanded a person to be punished for a crime. Instead, Jesus focused on the Christians’ response to people who try to take advantage of them. Rather than seeking opportunities for revenge, Christians should
retaliate with kindness, something that we can do only through the grace of God working within us. In this appeal, Jesus has taken us to a deeper level in our understanding of what it means to be a follower of the Lord.
The final antithesis addresses the attitude that promotes love for friends and hatred for enemies. The command to love your neighbor is found in Leviticus 19:18. There is no explicit text that calls for hatred of enemies, even despite Deuteronomy 23:3-6.
In the context of Jesus’ world, the Jews were under foreign occupation by the Roman oppressive power and were second-class citizens in their own land. Given their oppression, they probably felt justified in hating their enemy, who at times severely oppressed them. Jesus was showing them a better way to live, even under less than ideal circumstances.
Read Matthew 5:44-45. What is Jesus saying to us here? More important, in what way can you apply this teaching in your own life with someone who has done you wrong?