This Gospel passage is an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, which lays down Jesus’s attitude to the Law. This teaching is on revenge and retaliation.
The Mosaic Law permitted vendetta, that is, the legitimate right to strike back if one were injured, or if a member of the family suffered a hostile attack. The fear of severe retaliation was what kept society’s lawbreakers in line. They knew that if they indulged in violent crime, they would get back as much as they had given. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life”, is what the Mosaic legislation proclaimed. This was perhaps necessary in a society where personal security was weak.
Jesus raises the ethical bar. Not retaliation but forgiveness is what he prescribes. “Turn the other cheek”, “walk the extra mile” is what he says. You break the chain of reprisal and revenge only by refusing to hit back, by being generous with your adversary. This is not the action of the weakling or the wimp who can’t hit back, but rather than of the strong man who won’t hit back.
These injunctions culminate in the greatest precept of them all: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The disciple is expected to take the way that God deals with us as the model. God doesn’t discriminate between good or bad in giving his blessings, so neither should we. The natural tendency is to favour our own – our family, our clan, our race. The supernatural motive for the disciple is to be “all goodness, just as your heavenly Father is all good.”
Truly an ethical teaching which challenges us all, and one which Jesus exemplified in his life!