A few years ago some young men stole my car. They crashed it, damaging it beyond repair, and I was never compensated for it. I even had to pay to have the car towed away from the crash site! By rights, those thieves should have replaced what they stole.

That type of justice was reflected in the Old Testament rule of eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth (Exodus 21:24; Matthew 5:38). The law taught that people had a right to expect in return exactly what was taken from them. Jesus, however, called His followers to something more radical. “Do not resist an evil person!” (Matthew 5:39). He gave four illustrations of what He meant:

An insulting slap to the face was prosecutable under Jewish and Roman law. Jesus said not to slap back or prosecute (Matthew 5:39). Jewish law ensured the protection of one’s clothes Exodus 22:26-27). But Jesus said that if one’s shirt was stolen, offer your coat too (Matthew 5:40). Roman soldiers could commandeer any citizen for labor. Jesus said to not simply do what the oppressor asks, but to do even more (Matthew 5:41). People who had no “right” to ask for money will ask for it. Jesus said we are not to evade them, but give to them (Matthew 5:42).

Jesus wasn’t saying that evil should be rewarded or that self-defense is wrong. Neither was He offering laws to be followed rigidly. What He was advocating is this: Forgo all retaliation and seek the best for those who harm you. Your oppressor may have a legitimate need for a shirt, money, or help—overlook their wrong and serve them. Your oppressor may simply be evil, but your contrasting behavior may jolt him or her to repentance (Romans 12:17-21).

I wonder what might have happened if I’d been able to meet the youths who stole my car, discover their real needs . . . and serve them.

NLT 365-day reading plan passage for today: Genesis 41:1-36