Sunday, May 5, 2013

Turning the Cheek, An Eye for an Eye, and the Law of Retaliation

In Church, I heard a minister attempt to explain one of the most misunderstood statements of Jesus. This is one of the most misunderstood verses concerning the Christian religion:
You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. (Matt. 5:38-42)
So what is the practical application of this?  We should not resist evil? Does this mean if someone hits us, we should let them? If someone sues us, we should immediately concede?  That we should give all our possessions to all who ask?  If we really follow this to the letter, we would be homeless.

The answer to this, is no.  This is another example of how the literal sense contains within an internal spiritual sense, and if you take these literally, it would be regarded as an "error". Whereas in the natural civil law evil must be punished, and those who take should restore what they stole, in the spiritual law, one should not seek revenge, or hold in hate those who have wronged us. Why is this? There is a spiritual law, where every evil carries with it its own punishment. The Jews were not ready to receive these spiritual laws, so they were given only natural civil laws. But contained in these natural laws, there are internal spiritual laws. This internal spiritual sense is explained in a system of correspondences, or symbolism, in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. So what is the meaning of the above passage?  Lets go through it one by one.
You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
This is the law of retaliation. Swedenborg explains the spiritual law behind these laws given to the Jews: give soul for soul, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and so forth, means that as thou hast done to another so shall it be done to thee. The reason why this law was given to the sons of Israel is, that such is the law in the spiritual world. He who there does good to another from the heart receives like good. Therefore he who does evil to another from the heart receives like evil. For good from the heart is conjoined with its reward, and evil from the heart is conjoined with its punishment; therefore there is heaven for the good and hell for the evil. (Heavenly Arcana, n. 9048)
So the spiritual law is, do not hold in hatred those who have done wrong to you. And I have seen this happen over and over in life: one's intention in the act, determines the final destiny or punishment for that person. What goes around, comes around. Thus one should not seek to take revenge. That is what is contained in the law of retaliation, because those are the laws that the Jews were able to receive.It goes to show that one cannot take the Bible literally.  Many of these laws of Moses have been abrogated, as they have served their purpose: for these laws were designed to be representative and symbolic until Jesus came to reveal some of their internal spiritual meaning. They are useful for teaching spiritual laws - and their internal spiritual sense is covered in more detail by Swedenborg in Heavenly Arcana (meaning "Heavenly Secrets").
But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
To "not resist" means to hold someone in hatred. Civil society must of course resist evil and restrain it. But this is a spiritual law: do not hold in hatred someone who has done wrong to you. And this is the spiritual meaning of the word "cheek" in scripture: it does not refer to one's physical cheek.  The face and cheek of a person represents your internal affection. For those who seek to harm you - those who seek to tease and jeer at you for whatever reason - the evil would love it more if you held them in hate and were bothered. If you do not hold the hatred inside, it bothers them more. The effect is, they get bothered: for those who hold you in hatred would be much bothered to see you happy. And the other effect is, they will probably start to leave you alone, if they see you are not bothered by it.
If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.
To take someone to court and sue them, is representative of someone who wishes to destroy your spiritual life. A tunic or cloak is representative of spiritual truths. So if someone seeks to destroy your religion, and tell you that your are wrong, the response is not to angry, but to instruct them: this is what "giving a cloak" means in the spiritual sense. In the symbolic sense of scripture, to be naked is to be without truths, when one receives understanding of the truth they are clothed. Thus when truth is falsified, it was customary for the prophets to tear their clothing.

For the rest of this passage, I will simply quote Swedenborg, who explains it well:
"An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," signifies that so far as any one takes away from another the understanding of truth and the sense of truth, so far are they taken away from him, the "eye" signifying the understanding of truth, and "tooth" the sense of truth, for a "tooth" means truth or falsity such as the sensual man has. That one who is in Christian good will permit an evil person to take these away as far as he can, is described by what the Lord says in reply on the same subject. "Resist not him who is in evil" signifies that there should be no fighting back of retaliation; for angels do not fight with the evil, much less do they return evil for evil, but they allow it to be done, since they are protected by the Lord, and therefore no evil from hell can do them harm. "Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek turn to him the other also" signifies if any one wishes to do harm to the perception and understanding of interior truth, it may be allowed to the extent of the effort; "the cheek" signifies the perception and understanding of interior truth, the "right cheek" affection for it and consequent perception of it, and the "left cheek" understanding of it, and as the "cheek" is mentioned, so is "smiting," which means doing harm to; for all things pertaining to the mouth, as the throat, the mouth itself, the lips, the cheeks, the teeth, signify such things as belong to the perception and understanding of truth, because they correspond to them, therefore by these objects in the sense of the letter of the Word, which consists of pure correspondences, these things are expressed; "if any man wisheth to sue thee at the law and to take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also," signifies if any one wishes to take away truth interiorly with thee, it may be allowed him to take away also exterior truth, "coat" signifying interior truth, and "cloak" exterior truth. This also is what angels do when they are with the evil, for the evil can take away nothing of good and truth from angels, but they can from those who on that account burn with enmity, hatred, and revenge, for these evils avert and repel protection by the Lord; "whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two," signifies whoever wishes to lead away from truth to falsity and from good to evil, since he cannot do it, may be left unopposed, a "mile" having a similar signification as a "way," namely, that which leads away or leads; "give to every one that asketh thee" signifies that it is to be permitted; "and from him who wisheth to borrow of thee turn thou not away" signifies that if any one wishes to be instructed he may be instructed, for the evil desire this that they may pervert and take away, and yet they cannot. (Apocalypse Explained, n. 556b)
These words of Jesus are not just for angels, but for men and women of the Christian Church, when the evil try to lead one astray. For those who stay in affection of love towards the Lord and the neighbor, the Lord will protect them from the evil, and one's own evil will return to them on their own head. Those who are in evil love to attack, and those who are in love always defend. This is the spiritual meaning of turning the other cheek. Don't follow an eye for an eye, do not let religion blind you.


  1. Thank you, Doug. I am blessed by this insight. I had a prophetic dream that lead me to search for understanding. I found it in this article, and I am so grateful towards God for giving me this resource. Blessings to you.

    1. Thank you Vallerie. Apologies for not publishing your comment earlier, I keep getting a lot of spam comments. You will find a lot of spiritual insights in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, it will lead to a lifetime of study and practice.


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