I've finally figured out what's bothering me about this passage. Up until now Jesus has been following the pattern that goes, "You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you." You have heard that you should do this-and-that according to the Law. You might think that's good enough, but I say to you that you need to dig deeper. You need to go beyond the wooden interpretation of the Law and get to the heart issues being addressed here. Don't just avoid murder but refrain from even speaking ill of your brother. Don't just avoid adultery but don't even look with lust upon a woman. Don't just avoid making false vows but avoid saying anything at all unless it's either yes or no.
Got it. But why doesn't this passage fit the same pattern? "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 an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also, etc." It sounds like Jesus is saying, You've heard that you should take your own revenge, but instead I want you to be nice. No, don't just be nice. Be ridiculously generous to the very people who least deserve it.
It's fine New Testament teaching in itself. But it just seems odd to me that Jesus would break from his usual approach of pulling a deeper spiritual truth out of an otherwise superficial understanding of the Law. Instead he appears to instructing that we do exactly the opposite of what the Law is teaching, namely putting off revenge and instead being generous to those would take from us.
Unless I am once again being a product of my culture and am totally misreading the true meaning of this portion of the Law. When you hear someone say, "Ohhh, an eye for an eye, huh?" that is another way of saying that you are viciously seeking to get revenge. Our culture views it as a statement of vindictiveness. "You're just trying to get back at her. You just want your pound of flesh." That's what "an eye for an eye" has come to mean to us.
But if it's in the Old Testament, it couldn't have the evil implications everyone thinks. The Law is holy, it isn't evil. It must be that the Law is simply talking about justice. For instance, if someone breaks your window they should pay for a new one. That makes sense. If someone steals your car they might go to jail in our society, but if you follow Old Testament thinking they might be required to pay you back two cars. In the OT if you took something from someone else, you are required to pay back at least what you took, sometimes more. Exodus 22:1-4 says that if someone steals an ox and either kills it or sells it, he must pay back the owner five oxen. I'd have to assume that he pays back one ox to replace the one that he stole and the extra four for the trouble he caused the owner for the temporary loss, as well as the hurt and offense he caused by committing the crime. On the other hand if he steals an ox and it is found alive in his possession, the offender is required to pay back double.
The penalty of requiring the eye of the one who injured the eye of his neighbor, or the tooth of the one who knocked out the tooth of the neighbor, is not only about justice but control of the passions. A person has been severely injured, and yet justice is measured out rationally, carefully, dispassionately. You might be tempted to kill that guy who gouged your eye or cut off your hand, right? But the Law requires restraint. Only one eye for the loss of one eye. Not five eyes. Not the eyes of the offender's children as well, but just his own. One eye for one eye. One tooth for one tooth. That's it.
So then, if that's the spirit of "an eye for an eye" then it would make sense that Jesus is asking us to look deeper into this teaching of the Law by instructing us to have even further restraint over our passions when someone takes something from us. Don't just restrain your passions by requiring from the offender only what justice demands. Be fully restrained and don't demand anything at all. In fact give your coat to the one who already took your shirt, and go two miles with the one who will force you to walk one. Not even your heavenly Father is getting an eye for an eye. He restrains himself to the point of suffering loss, yet he continues to give freely.