Sitting in Panera on Friday, working on this sermon, a group of older men were joking around about one of their companions complaining about his back pain. They started calling out at him “survival of the fittest,” and “the weak will perish!” and hunched over his chair, he said, “your right, I’m a goner.”
In this same context of “survival of the fittest” and “the weak will perish!” but with much more serious connotations people have also quoted this passage from Matthew “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But it was also said with things like :
• “You hurt me, I’m going to hurt you more!”
• “I’m keeping score”
• and “tit for tat.”
It all means the same thing: retribution, revenge, recompense, you get hurt by someone, and you do what you have to do, and be sure to get even, and more than even, you make them pay for what they have done to you. I’m strong and your weak and I’ll show you just how weak you are! This is vengeance blinded by rage!
We all know how the story ends- the person that you sought recompense and revenge upon seeks that same revenge upon you. Back and forth, greater intensity and greater anger and hatred, till someone gets killed maybe emotionally, or financially, or physically and the war is over. But its not, because the other person in doing this revenge has lost their very heart and soul in the process and they are dead on the inside as well.
But the Bible says an eye for an eye, doesn’t that give me permission?
The history of the passage an eye for an eye does not set any precedence for this rage driven revenge. Knowing that revenge and desire for retribution is the norm in sinful humanity this passage sets limits on that desire. It follows in the daily and even legal interactions of people from an understanding of lex talionis or the “law of retribution.” This law provided a boundary and limited the scope for revenge, which without boundaries always tends to escalate and blow out of proportion. There was a principal of equivalence and even restraint in action especially in the legal context, but probably more importantly it treated every life and the body of every person as equal and valuable regardless of social, racial or economic status. (Gibbs 302)
That is the purpose of the law, whether it is natural, moral or legal, it is to restrain and convict us of the sinful tendencies that plague us, showing us to be sinful and falling short of the glory of God. But when Jesus speaks to His disciples about the life they are called to live in this relationship with Him, He goes beyond the requirements of the law and shows what life in the spirit of Christian love as God has loved us looks like.
“But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (this was to be insulted) and if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Matthew 5:38-42
You can’t be serious we might say to Jesus. Maybe he just meant this in a spiritual, existential sort of way. But we have to remember that Jesus’ audience at the time were Israelites suffering under roman occupation and rule where to be insulted, ridiculed and constricted into forced labor was a common place occurrence. This was not a pie in the sky conversation Jesus was having but grounded in the experiences of the everyday person.
And in the face of this unflinching call of Jesus come the “what if’s” that we regularly throw at God (and at the Pastor): “what if someone broke into my house and was taking my possessions or threatening my family,” “what if someone wrongly sues me,” “what if I’m attacked?”
Then Martin Luther throws into the debate as well and says: “Christ is not telling me to give what I have to any scoundrel that comes along and deprive my family of it or others who may need it and whom I am obliged to help then suffer want myself and become a burden to others.”
This, with the multitude of other situations and “what if” scenarios start to give us the idea that Jesus is not giving us a one to one law for every situation in life, because life in itself is dynamic and events are unexpected and a Christian is called to negotiate this life in a manner that is befitting the name you are given, one who belongs to Jesus Christ.
But one thing we can be sure of is our sinful tendency to fall upon the other side of the line: when we are wronged, instead of enduring we desire to retaliate. When we are cheated, instead of persevering we fight for recompense. Instead of repaying evil with good we want to repay evil with evil. Crying out those words that fall so easily from our lips, “mine all mine!”
But when we do, are we not being merely human, and forgetting to follow in the footsteps of the one who saved us and called us to a life of greater sacrifice and love, a life lived in the Spirit. As Christians we must take seriously this call upon our lives and see that it is integral to how we live and how we understand our God. Think about the words of the Lord’s Prayer that we say so easily “God, forgive me my sins as I forgive those who sin against me,” but if we think about it these words should terrify us. In this petition taught to us by the Lord we are asking God to forgive us just as we forgive other people who have wronged us. What would that look like if God forgave us in the same way we forgave others. What would happen if God sought recompense from us for the broken and sinful life we live? What if God retaliated against us? Could one of us stand, would anyone be left or would we be utterly destroyed in body and soul?
But God is love. God does not give to us what we deserve. He does not forgive us as we forgive others. But God embodied his love in Jesus Christ and showed us fully and completely what it means to love and to forgive. In the quiet submission of the cross, his cheek turned to those who insulted him, his hands spread for the nails, his words “Father forgive, for they know not what they do,” his death given for our eternal life. What greater love is given than this?
When we are faced with the same questions in our own life we must see our enemies and those who would steal from us and persecute us through the eyes of Jesus Christ. What is gained or loss in this debate is not of material worth but worth in the spirit. What is at stake is eternity. What is at stake is the salvation of the body and soul.
If I, who am a representative of Jesus in this world, fight with tooth and nail and take an eye for an eye what am I saying about that other person’s value in the eyes of God, what am I saying about my own relationship with God?
But as a representative of Jesus Christ, am willing to be generous and am willing to sacrifice, to deny my right to take an eye for an eye, this speaks of the loving work of Jesus in this world and the worth of the person in the eyes of God.
This is a hard thing and it can only be contemplated with in an eternal perspective. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3: 21b, ff: “For all things are yours/the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours, and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.” In Jesus Christ all things are already yours because all things already belong to Jesus. In Jesus you have already been forgiven, you already have eternity, you already have blessings incomparable. If all things are yours in Christ and because of Christ you don’t have to fight tooth and nail for what is yours, because what is yours is eternal and can never be taken away from you. How does this change your life? How does it change the way you love others, especially your enemies and those who would hurt you?
The love of Jesus can change everything and turn how we live upside down. Think of it this way, there is enough ugly in this world, we are not that, we are the love of Christ. We get to love as God has loved and let Him take care of the rest.