Eye for Eye

“You have heard it said ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you …”

‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is one of the most quoted statements of the Bible. People usually quote it as justification to take personal revenge. But this was not the original purpose of the statement. It was originally a legal term know as the Law of Retaliation (Lex Talionis) which limited judges to passing sentences that did not exceed the crime. In other words the judge could only take an eye for an eye, he could not take a life for an eye.
Of course the law was metaphoric, not literal – no one actually had an eye or a tooth removed. In most cases there was a fine imposed that was considered correct compensation for the damage done. So if you killed my cow you had to replace it and if you damaged my arm and I couldn’t work, you had to provide for the loss wages.
The most important thing for people of today to note is that the Law of Retaliation was for those with legal authority and not for personal application. This removes the popular notion that the Bible allows us to take personal revenge. It does not, it tells us to practice forgiveness and to leave revenge to God. But the Jews of Jesus day had forgotten this and like many people today, they had begun using ‘An eye for an eye’ to justify personal revenge, and so Jesus said, “You have heard it said ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” And Jesus then went on to describe how God wanted us to respond to evil persons, and he gave four examples:
1) ‘If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’
Here, Jesus is not suggesting that if someone punches you on the right cheek, you should let him punch you again on the left. In his day it was common for a person of high rank to strike a person of lower class with the back of the hand to assert their authority or dominance. This probably happened quite often to the poorer and less educated people of Galilee. Obviously the struck person would feel humiliated, but in that day and age they might have also felt it was out of line to challenge someone of high class.
The important thing for us to notice is that the strike on the cheek with the back of the hand was considered more of an insult than an act of violence. And since we mostly dominate people with words now days we should interpret Jesus as saying ‘If someone insults you, let him insult you again. Return goodness for evil you may win your enemy over.’
2) ‘If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.’
A tunic was an under-garment. In Jesus’ day people usually owned a number of tunics but only one cloak. Jesus is saying that if a person wants to sue unjustly you for your tunic, tell him he can take your cloak as well. In other words, let your sacrificial generosity set a different example, let cause your enemy to see his injustice, he may change.
3) ‘If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.’
In Jesus’ day, Roman soldiers treated those they conquered as lesser citizens. A soldier had the legal right to tell a Jew to carry his bags, but he could not tell him to go more than a 1000 paces (a mile). Of course Jews resented this forced labour, but Jesus told them to do the unexpected; to go two miles. In other words do what your enemy does not expect, be so generous that he wants to know the God you serve.
4) ‘Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’
For this one we need a reminder; the context is ‘Do not resist an evil person.’ So here Jesus must be talking about a borrower who is abusing you. Some people borrow and never repay. But Jesus says we should be generous anyway.
Obviously he also wants us to be wise and not to give out amounts which we cannot afford to lose. And obviously there is a place to withhold money in order to teach a leach to get a job. But the idea is to be good when the borrower is being evil.
If we should not resist an evil person can a Christian be a policeman or a soldier?
Yes, we can. Jesus is not saying that we should dismantle our army or police force and let evil people do as they like. No, a nation’s government has a responsibility to protect its people. And according to Scripture a government’s authority to punish criminals is from God himself.
Paul said, ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer’ (Ro 13:1-4).
Again, we need to distinguish between personal offence and civil offence. When Jesus says ‘Do not resist an evil person’ he is speaking about our response to personal injustice not our response to crime. The legal term ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth’ was for judges not personal use.
Paul summarized what Jesus taught very well when he said, Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Ro 12:19-21).
But in more recent times the commenter Alex Plummer put even better when he said,
To return evil for good is devilish,
To return good for good is human,
To return good for evil is divine.

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