Jesus and Torah: Eye for an Eye

Jesus and Torah: Eye for an Eye

Jesus and Torah: Eye for an Eye.

“You have heard it said, ‘Eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42).

Eye for an Eye. Remember that Jesus was trying with these words to reveal the spirit of the Law, God’s original intent of the Law. Is Christ’s ideal of non-resistance the spirit of the Law concerning an eye for an eye? The command given in Exodus 21:24 (also in Lev. 24:20 and Deut. 19:21) was offered as a way of controlling a thirst for revenge. It encouraged a punishment that fit the crime. It was never meant to be taken literally. It was called the Jewish Law of Retribution, and was actually a humane alternative to what most ancient cultures were doing. This command was a reasonable instruction to make justice humane, punishment that is appropriate to the crime. If you damage someone’s property, pay for the damages. If you harm someone, pay for what is reasonable to offset the cost of the injury. Excessive punishment was against the Law, as was revenge (Lev. 19:18). The command might be better read as, “only one eye for one eye, measure for measure.” Rabbinic authorities have reasoned this way: “There is no form of punishment in Torah that actually carried out a punishment of maiming an offender. There is no actual verse that appears to mandate injury to the eye, tooth, etc. Although one must intervene to save an innocent victim, one may not actually use violence in doing so if possible. One is to neutralize the attacker through non-lethal injury.” It’s true that Jesus offered His unique interpretation to the Law of Retaliation, but the rabbinic sages sure seem to be in the spirit of Christ’s words.

Literally. These are some of the most controversial words that Jesus ever said. Taken literally, they could mean: Don’t offer resistance to an evil person wishing to do you harm; if someone hits you, don’t hit back and instead let them hit you again; if someone wants your coat, give him your shirt as well; if someone in authority asks you to do something burdensome, offer to do even more; if someone wants to borrow something of yours, let him have it, no strings attached. So it seems like Jesus is saying: Don’t repay an evil act with another evil act; if someone hits you, respond with kindness; instead of demanding your rights, give them up freely; live with ridiculous generosity; be magnanimous if it is even to your disadvantage; reasonable justice must give way to unexpected love; violence is to lead to non-violence. As MLK said, “Break the chain reaction of evil.

Literally? Does Jesus really mean for us to take His words here seriously and literally? Was He using hyperbole and exaggeration to make a point? Did Jesus mean that we aren’t even supposed to defend ourselves or a loved one or an innocent victim when in danger? After all, we’re all made in the image of God, including me and my loved ones, and are worthy of respect and should not be abused. He doesn’t really want us to be unfairly bullied or harmed, does He? If not taken literally, what is the spirit of what He said? Maybe it’s something like this: Try to make peace your quest in all situations; don’t seek revenge, don’t carry a grudge; don’t retaliate if provoked or offended; do not hate someone who does you wrong; let love be your instinct and impulsive reaction to hate; be generous and self-giving with your possessions; don’t support excessive punishment of a wrongdoing; swallow your pride if someone wants to humiliate you; use weapons of righteousness instead of retaliation; never take the law into your own hands; try not to be offended when something offensive happens to you; avoid an internal spirit of violence; be uncomfortable with strife between people until peace is achieved.

Application. Are Jesus’ words here meant to be applied to national affairs or just personal matters? What about nonviolent resistance, which is itself a form of resistance? What about advocating for human rights instead of giving them up so freely? What about fending off a bully who won’t respond to kindness or forgiveness? Should we be warriors or pacifists or somewhere in between? In G.K. Chesterton’s masterpiece Orthodoxy, he discusses the paradox of Christianity in which “two opposite passions may blaze beside each other.” He says that there has always been room in the Christian faith for both “the fiercest of warriors and the meekest of pacifists.” He said that, “It is true that the Church told some to fight and others not to fight. And it is true that those who fought were like thunderbolts, and those who did not fight were like statues. But this is the big fact about Christian ethics… the discovery of the new balance.” Perhaps this new balance reflects Christ’s New Covenant of love. It still seems true that Jesus’ words here provoke more questions than definitive answers. Why did He instruct His disciples to buy swords, for instance, (Luke 22:36) while an hour later He is forbidding Peter from using his (Matt. 26:52)? Interesting. Warriors and pacifists?

Thoughts. Jesus’ words seem unrealistic in a sinful world full of bullies. This ideal Christian ethic seems a far distance from how we have to live every day. But plenty of Christian saints have taken His words literally and lived them out. Jesus closed this section of His Sermon on the Mount with, “So, be perfect.” Does that mean His ideal as stated here is a perfect ethic in His eyes? Does His ideal more nearly reflect the Kingdom of heaven? Perhaps this means that the closer we get to His ideal, the closer we get to full maturity. Perhaps beating up an aggressive bully betrays Jesus’ words of non-resistance, but I am content with the fact that often times we have to choose the lesser of evils. The greater evil would be to intentionally allow an innocent one to fall victim to a hurtful bully. I think Jesus understands that.