Tuesday, May 29, 2012
“An Eye for an Eye”
"I don't get mad; I get even." We have all felt that way at one time or another, and it does seem only fair. After all, what is wrong with insisting on our rights?
Jesus continues His discussion of the Jewish Torah by examining the principle of retributive justice. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'" (Matt. 5:38; NKJV). The law actually did say that, in several different places in fact: Ex. 21:22-25; Lev. 24:17-22; and Deut. 19:21. It was a well established principle of law, and seemingly a matter of simple justice.
What problem, then, could Jesus possible have had with such an obvious truth? The answer goes back to what we have said earlier about the difference between civil and moral law. Civil law is meant to serve a specific function: it involves the way order is maintained in society by the civil authorities. Moral law, however, involves our duties and obligations towards God. Civil law regulates external conduct. Moral law touches the heart and mind. The difficulty here is that the Torah embodies both civil and moral law at the same time. The problem is that during the time of Jesus' earthly ministry the rabbis had focused on the civil aspects of the law, sometimes to the neglect of the underlying moral precepts. The present instance is a case in point.
The passages cited above were addressed primarily to the civil magistrates and involved the administration of justice. In meting out punishment the rule was strict equity: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. A whole body of case law was built up around this principle and was eventually codified in the Mishnaic tractates Baba Kamma, Baba Metzia, Baba Bathra, and Sanhedrin.
It was tempting to think that we are entitled to stand up for our rights and demand retributive justice, but we are wrong to think that way. What the moral law requires is quite different. "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:18).
And so it is that Jesus said, "But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two" (Matt.5z;39-41). If we love our neighbors as ourselves, if we genuinely car about his wellbeing, we will not seek vengeance but rather reconciliation. The point is to win him, not the case at law.
And so it is that Jesus sums up His argument by saying, "Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away" (v. 42). And here Jesus is but echoing the words of the Torah itself: "If there is among you a poor man of your brethren . . . you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs . . . You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him . . .your shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land" (Dt. 15:7-11).
God requires the civil magistrate to administer the law with strict equity and justice, but He requires us as individuals to practice kindness and compassion in all our dealings with others. The civil law is a concession to human weakness; to practice love is divine.