Pastor Dale E. Austin Matthew 5:38-48
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless.”
As human beings, we are experts at rationalizing and justifying our actions, even when we know they are not really what God might want from us. For instance, we pull select verses from the Bible and put them together in strange ways until we have what we consider to be a sound scriptural affirmation of what we want to do. Then we fall back on this as justification for our actions. Probably the verse which is most often quoted – and almost never accurately – is what we’ve come to refer to as the Law of Retributive Justice. It’s found in the 21st chapter of Exodus, and it’s usually misquoted as saying, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” That’s not exactly what it says (it actually appears as just stated only in Matthew), and moreover the circumstances for which this concept could be applied are extremely limited. Far from the carte blanche implication that we usually hear.
Helping people to understand God’s true intent, Jesus tries to correct some of the misunderstandings which have developed over the years. So it’s only inevitable that he eventually turns his attention to this law. People have understood it to mean that if someone hurts me or a member of my family, then I have every right to return the favor.
Jesus tells us not to respond in this way, but to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to offer our shirt as well as our coat.
These are not easy things for us to hear. We want permission to get even. But Jesus is reminding us that the whole purpose of the concept of Retributive Justice was not to validate retribution but to restrict it. In a culture where the understood norm was that if you hurt someone in my family then I will do the same to ten members of your family, the idea was to limit retribution to keep it proportional to the harm which was inflicted in the first place. Otherwise, the situation continues to escalate until, as someone noted, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless.”
Much like our own age, the people of Jesus’ time had learned to interpret this concept as justification for vengeance, as permission to “get even.” So Jesus is trying to help them rediscover the original intent. It’s not what they’ve been told, or what we’ve generally been told either. Further, Jesus points out that if you truly wish to be God’s followers, then you must aim higher that what you’ve been told in the past. Some of the things which we’ve come to believe are simply not true, and this is one of those examples. No, the Bible does not say “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” except under very specific circumstances and not as a general rule. Reading the context of the original statement in Exodus, we realize that this would hardly ever happen.
This concept of aiming higher is even more underscored when Jesus tells us to love our enemies. That’s not what the people of his day had been told either. Vestiges of this parochialism are still evident today, particularly if we try to understand “enemies” in something other than national terms. One of my earlier parishioners, who claimed to be a solid Christian, was often heard to brag about how he would sometimes cheat his customers by selling them refurbished parts as brand new. He justified it by claiming that as long as they weren’t Christians, he didn’t have to treat them like brothers and sisters. He was actually quite proud of how he was able to cheat the “enemy” in this way. Love your neighbors and hate your enemies – wrong concept!
Jesus invites us to aim higher – to love our enemies and pray for them. This doesn’t mean that we have to accept or condone their deeds or their actions against us. But it does require that we see them as human beings and as part of God’s creation. And pray for them! Learning to do so would be a great first step toward world peace. It sounds simple enough, at least on the surface, but it isn’t. Our beliefs and biases are deep-seated and difficult to acknowledge, much less to change.
That’s what makes these some of the most difficult of all Jesus’ teachings. He’s saying to us, “You’ve heard that it’s all right to get even or to avenge your family’s misfortune. You’ve heard that it’s acceptable to hate your enemies. I’m telling you, ‘Not so.’ If you want to be my disciple then you have to adopt a whole new standard of relating to the world. If someone hurts you, return their anger with kindness.” That’s not easy, but doing so will frustrate the heck out of them.
In another discourse, Jesus will liken such kindness to “heaping burning coals upon their heads.” Maybe that’s his point. His whole ministry was built around the concept of overcoming evil with good, of defeating anger and hatred with love and kindness.
Yes, he calls us to aim higher in our lives that we’ve previously been told.
Whatever we’ve done before, he continually urges us to aim higher, and higher still, always reaching for the goal of being worthy of being called by his name.