Best of Daily Reflections: Jesus on “An Eye for an Eye”
“[A]n eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, . . .”
In yesterday’s reflection, I examined the Lex Talionis in Exodus 21:24: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” I explained that this law was meant to limit punishment or compensation for crime to that which fit the crime itself. The Lex Talionis was not intended to encourage individuals to get even with those who had wronged them so much as to guide legal proceedings. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see how the “eye for an eye” principal might be misused to bless personal vengeance.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus underscored the notion that we are not to get even with those who wrong us. He did this by citing a portion of the Lex Talionis, and then calling his followers to a radical new way of living: “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” (Matt. 5:38-40). Jesus takes the principle of nonvengeance to a whole new level.
Sometimes Christians get so wrapped up in an intellectual debate about the implications of Jesus’ teaching on nonretaliation that they neglect simple application. There is a place for such theological and ethical conversation, to be sure. But I want to underscore the personal relevance and challenge of Jesus’ teaching. In our relationships, whether with our colleagues or family members, our friends or political opponents, it’s natural for us to want to get even when we’re wronged. Turning the other cheek is not instinctive. Getting back feels normal. Yet those of us who follow Jesus are called to a costly, countercultural, counterintuitive way of living. We will not advance the kingdom of God by applying the Lex Talionis in our relationships, but by deciding not to return evil for evil. God’s grace alone will give us the ability to do what Jesus asks of us.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Have you been tempted in your relationships to get even with those who have wronged you? When? How? What helps you to turn the other cheek? What makes it hard to turn the other cheek?
PRAYER: Gracious Lord, though I thank you for your elaboration upon the Lex Talionis, I must admit that I find your teaching difficult. When somebody hurts me, I want to get even. I can fool myself into thinking that this will make me feel better. Your way of nonretaliation doesn’t come naturally to me, as you know. So forgive me when I have returned hurt for hurt.
Help me, dear Lord, to live according to your way of peace in all of my key relationships: at work, at home, in church, in the community. May your Spirit enable me to do what I could not do on my own. Help me to be someone who turns the other cheek with freedom, trusting you for justice, protection, and blessing. Amen.