No Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose
“But if there is further injury, the punishment must match the injury: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.” – Exodus 21:23-24
The funny thing about revenge is that it usually doesn’t stop when it becomes reciprocal. For example, imagine that somebody takes a dollar from you. Although it’s not a large amount of money, you’re still upset – and rightfully so. This person took something from you that doesn’t belong to them, and caused you harm in the process.
At this point, you want things to be made right. However, in most cases, restoration of the right order of things goes beyond simply returning to you what is yours. Sure, you want your money back, but you also want some form of compensation for the pain this person caused you.
While this may be a natural desire that many of us feel, it’s not a good rule for a healthy, functional society. This is precisely why many ancient documents – such as the Code of Ur, the Laws of Hammurabi, and even the Hebrew Bible (which we typically refer to as the Old Testament) teach the concept of “an eye for an eye.” Although it may seem like a common-sense principal to us today, it was a revolutionary new standard at the time. It pushed against the desire of revenge and retribution in favor of a more balanced system of justice.
This may not surprise you, but balance wasn’t usually Jesus’ preferred method or approach. Jesus’ nature was much more radical. As we continue our weeks-long series in the Sermon on the Mount, we arrive at Jesus’ reinterpretation of the ancient “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” law:
“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” – Matthew 5:38-42, NLT
At first glance, it sounds like Jesus is telling us that we should let evil people take advantage of us. However, we must remember two things here. First of all, Jesus has already shown a tendency to use hyperbole throughout this speech to make a strong point.
More importantly, Jesus is working to get to the heart of the matter (pun intended) in each concept he introduces. When Jesus instructs us to “give to the person who asks,” he’s warning us against the danger of valuing revenge or retribution. If we do what we do because of what we believe, extending grace and mercy to our neighbors starts with believing that we don’t have to make amends for every wrong done against us. We don’t need to take back an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. Instead, we should offer the same forgiveness and compassion that Jesus himself offers each of us, even though we aren’t deserving.
“Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.” Philippians 2:4-5