An Eye for an Eye
"Anyone who injures another person must be dealt with according to the injury inflicted—a fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Whatever anyone does to injure another person must be paid back in kind."
It seems like every month, I read some story in the news about a jury that awards a plaintiff an outlandish sum of money in a legal case. Yet, at the same time, I know of many cases where genuine victims of wrongdoing were not compensated fairly because they lacked the financial resources to hire effective legal counsel.
Equally common are news stories that tell the sad tale of revenge. A suburban husband kills his wife's lover. A gang member shoots into the home of a rival who had attacked his friend, killing innocent family members. In many parts of the globe, murder begets more murder in the name of honor.
Leviticus 24:19-20, the so-called Lex Talionis (Latin for "law of retaliation"), was meant to curb egregious legal punishments as well as personal vengeance. The "eye for an eye" principle was not meant for individuals who sought to get even with someone who wronged them. Rather, it offered guidance for legal courts, the only appropriate context for righting wrongs. The rhetoric of "an eye for an eye" can seem rather extreme to us, but, in fact, this legislation was meant to curb excessive legal penalties as well as personal vengeance (such as, You break my tooth and I'll kill you.) Leviticus 24 calls for offenses to be handled in court, and to be dealt with in an appropriate way, involving what we used to call "natural consequences" or "logical consequences" of wrong behavior.
Though Leviticus 24 was intended to guide legal proceedings, it was (and still is) used as justification for personal revenge. Jesus, on the contrary, called his followers to a breathtaking willingness to let go of getting back at one who wrongs them. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, "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" (Matt 5:38-41).
Notice, Jesus does not excuse wrongdoing here or suggest that those who commit crimes should not be called to account for their actions. Rather, he focuses on how his disciples are to act in the kingdom of God. When people wrong us, we are not to get even, but rather to endure injustice for Christ's sake. If someone insults us, which was the meaning of a slap on the cheek in the time of Jesus, we are not to get even or even to defend ourselves. We leave that up to God, in the hope that our nonretaliation might touch the heart of the offender.
You and I will face innumerable opportunities to obey these challenging words of Jesus: when somebody cuts us off on the highway, when a colleague gossips about us, when a spouse says something harsh, and so forth. There are times, to be sure, when we need to approach one who has sinned against us in order to be reconciled (see Matt. 18:15). But we must reject our natural tendency to strike back when we are struck. In this way, we both obey and imitate our Lord.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: When someone hurts you, physically or otherwise, what do you tend to do in response? Why do we want to get even when we are injured? Are you in a relationship right now that requires you to turn the other cheek?
PRAYER: Dear Lord, it seems like we need your guidance today more than ever. Given the abuse of lawsuits and the tendency for people to seek vengeance when they are wronged, the wisdom of Leviticus would serve us well.
I must admit, Lord, that I find the call to "turn the other cheek" to be unsettling. I don't like to do this sort of thing. I want to get even. I want to win. I want to fight back. But you call me to a different way, the way of nonretaliation, the way of peace, the way of your kingdom. Help me, dear Lord, to be the kind of person you have called me to be. Give me wisdom to know when I need simply to endure and when I need to approach a brother or sister who has wronged me.
In all things, may I learn to be like you: to think like you, to feel like you, and to act like you. To you be all the glory! Amen.