Jesus & Rights
Do we use rights in a way that makes them feel like wrongs? We have seen what happens when that is the case. We choose sides, cancel, and demonize. Rights are often not as black and white as we would like them to be, and it can get messy. This is especially true for Christians in America because we have to differentiate what our Christian faith ideals are separately from the inherent Western ideals that we read into our faith.
There is a way to view and exercise your rights whereby you can cultivate righteousness rather than contentiousness.
Jesus describes this in Matthew 5:38-42 “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.”
What is Jesus saying about rights? It sounds at first like He is telling us to be doormats, but this is really about responsibility with principles, not particulars. The examples He uses are very specific to the culture of His time, but the principles go further into applications for us today.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”
This language is used multiple times in the Old Testament and is known as lex talionis or the Law of Retaliation. It predates scripture and is one of the oldest known laws in the history of civilization. It was not intended to be permissive to allow people to harm each other. Rather, it was intended to restrict people from striking disproportionate vengeance on others and hold people back from escalating violence. However, the Pharisees began preaching this law as a solution and prescription.
Jesus is expanding on it to say that this is not God’s heart for His people: that kingdom citizens would go beyond retribution to better, deeper righteousness. We can exercise our rights in subversive ways that require even more strength. How do we do this in such a way that we open doorways for God’s spirit to move in ways that we cannot manufacture?
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
In that day, this was a backhanded slap meant to humiliate and demean, not just any act of violence. A modern-day example would be someone talking about you behind your back or bashing you on social media. By choosing not to retaliate in kind, slap for slap, you elevate your dignity and the dignity of the offender. You do not have to get even because you know who you are and whose you are.
“And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
The shirt referred to here would be more akin to an undershirt, and over it would be a coat. Scholars have described this coat as a person’s security. It would be the last item a person owned before being completely naked and destitute. It even doubled as a blanket. Jewish law forbade people from taking someone’s coat in a court of law because it was their last vestige of security.
Jesus goes so far as to say you should give up that security to someone not because they are owed it but because you are communicating that you trust the Lord will provide. It shows that you are seeking to understand and reconcile with others.
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”
At the time, Rome had taken over Palestine, and the Romans and Jewish people were at odds. A Roman soldier could approach a Jewish person and require them to carry the Roman’s bag for a mile, and there was nothing they could do to resist. Jesus says to comply with others regardless of your disdain for them and then go even further. What possibilities could that open up when you choose to participate in that journey and open yourself to opportunity?
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
This is not an obligatory sentence to mandate giving. Rather, it is a principle of cultivating a heart and spirit that is ready and willing to give. It communicates that you do not see yourself as an owner of your goods but as a steward of God’s gifts.
We are not called to be doormats and live in passivity. This is an active, subversive way of life. This is how we respond to those wishing us harm or misfortune. By doing this, we allow God to move in the situation in the way only He can. There, we will see redemption, reconciliation, rescue, and renewal.