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Gospel of Matthew 5: 38-42 (NIV)
(Jesus continued,) 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Jesus’ reference to “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” drew on at least three of the Books of the Law: Exodus (21: 24), Leviticus (24: 20) and Deuteronomy (19: 21). In mandating retribution, the Law placed a limit on the extent of that retribution. Nothing more than the equivalent of the damage already caused could be regarded as legitimate punishment and, in some cases, literal retaliation could be replaced by a payment of “damages”.
It is instructive to read the context in which the Law required retribution. We find it clearly presented in Deuteronomy 19: 16-21 where a malicious witness is used for an example. “The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar …” (verse 18a, emphasis added). This occurs “ before the priests and the judges who are in office at that time”, the equivalent of appearing before a court of law.
Jesus recognised the authority of the state (the governing authorities) as did the Apostle Paul in his epistles (see for example Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2). Jesus also knew that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had extended the application of the Law beyond a court-like situation to justify personal revenge. In doing so they had been ignoring the intention of the law with which they liked to be seen to comply (Leviticus 19: 16b-18):
Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour’s life. I am the LORD.
Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so that you will not share in his guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.
Rejecting the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, Jesus urged another approach. One need not inevitably seek full retribution, one need not pursue the “awarding of damages”; rather, one could in fact demonstrate mercy – we recall the Beatitude on that subject!
From our own experience or observation of matters brought to court, we know that retaliation can be motivated by vengeance and the pursuit of “damages” can be motivated by greed. The Christian way is to act out of love, the first-named of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5: 22).
Love does not ask of us passivity in the face of evil however it does require that, where possible, we de-escalate a situation in the interests of pursuing peace and reconciliation.
How then might we today apply Jesus’ teaching? Because we trust our Heavenly Father, we can be assured that the “Judge of all the earth” will do right (Genesis 18: 25). If we see justice fail on earth we know we can await the Lord’s judgement, realising that we too will be judged by the same standards. By demonstrating Christian mercy and forgiveness, we may even be able to draw a hardened soul a few steps closer to our Lord Jesus.