Pastor Steve Mechem
Matthew 5:38-42 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
There is a Latin phrase Lex Talionis. It means “the law of retaliation.”
The law of retaliation was the earliest way people sought to work through concerns of personal and property loss, justice and vengeance.
This idea of legal and moral retaliation is originally found in Babylonian writings and is made most famous in the Hebrew bible’s command “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. The law of retaliation is intended to solve the lust for vengeance and the need for fairness in response to wrong doing.
The downside to Lex Talionis is that mercy, common sense and understanding are often subjugated in favor of revenge and punishment. As Gandhi is often credited as saying, “An eye for eye will make the whole world blind.
The upside to Lex Talionis is that justice is served without an over-abundance of judgement.
So, If a person kills your cow, you are permitted, by Lex Talionis, to take one of her cows, not 25 of her cows. Seems fair.
If a person pokes out your eye, you are allowed to poke out his eye, not both of his eyes or his eye and his ear. Sounds awful, but fair (in a strict sense).
If a person kills another person, than she will be put to death, but not tortured, and her body will not be mutilated or whatever.
Lex Talionis was intended to insure justice to the victim while providing a degree of protection to the culprit.
Through the years, as criminal justice has evolved, legal systems have developed penalties that, while not involving actually eye gouging, create punishments that fit the severity of the offense- prison sentences, fines, reparations, etc.
But still, within the system is the need to satisfy vengeance and provide recompense.
Into the conversation about justice, mercy, retaliation, vengeance and punishment comes Jesus and his radical way of thinking. “Rather than eye for an eye,” he says, “how about this?”
If you get slapped, turn your cheek.
If someone forces you to carry their stuff for a mile, carry it a second mile.
If someone takes your shirt, give them you coat as well.
N.T. Wright, in his commentary on Matthew writes, “Jesus offers a new sort of justice, a creative, healing, restorative justice. The old justice found in the Bible was designed to prevent revenge running away with itself. Better an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth than an escalating feud with each side going one worse than the other. But Jesus goes one better still. Better to have no vengeance at all, but rather a creative way forward, reflecting the astonishingly patient love of God, who wants people to shine his light into the world so that all people will see … that God’s deepest nature is overflowing love.”
This section of Jesus’ sermon on the mount illustrates one of many new ways of thinking, acting and living that Jesus' proposes to his audience.
Surely these words sounded strange or upside down to men and women who grew up in a occupied country, who were commonly mistreated by foreign soldiers, who were forced to be compliant to people they perceived as evil overlords, who were forced to pay homage and taxes to a King who not of their choosing.
Unlike the many Messiahs who had come before, these words of Jesus were not incitations to violent upheaval or the words of revolution.
I think Jesus would say that his words, while not a call to violence, were the most revolutionary words of all. Rather than violence, His words advocated unconditonal love and unbounded compassion and personal sacrifice.
He spent his ministry foretelling a kingdom that was coming into being. A Kingdom where God rules in love and where Kingdom subjects are focused on taking care of each other.
You see this teaching throughout the gospels, from that moment in Nazareth when Jesus says reads from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then follows up the reading with the words, “Today, these words are fulfilled,”
And you see the teaching in those words from the cross on Friday, “Forgive them.”
All of Jesus’ life was dedicated to teaching a new way of living. The New is often rejected and those who were bound to keep the status quo the status quo responded to Jesus with violence and hate.
He became the target for their anger and their small mindedness.
Through a conspiracy involving church and state, Jesus was condemned and died as a sinner on a cross.
Interestingly, Jesus arrest, trial, and death gave him ample opportunity to practice what he preached, to put the Kingdom way on display.
Whereas the Messiahs who had come before stayed dead after their comeupins, Jesus remarkably came back to life.
Resurrection. Life back into his body. Standing before Mary. Walking with disciples on the road. Challenging the disciples to investigate his crucifixion wounds . Cooking fish for breakfast. Encouraging his disciples to continue the work- the work of love and grace.
Some call the resurrection a miracle.
Some call the resurrection a triumphal victory.
Some call the resurrection Salvific.
While all these things may be true, I call resurrection vindication.
Resurrection is vindication, not only of Jesus' personhood, but of his teaching- his way, one might call it the Kingdom way. You find its elements in the Sermon on the Mount, in parables and throughout Jesus’ life and ministry. And since this is Easter, and the Easter event means that Jesus’ teaching is worth hearing.
Let me try to sum up that teaching.
This is Jesus’ way …
Reflect God’s love, not just in words, but in every possible way.
Love people, even people who aren't lovable.
Live upside down and inside out- that’s the beatitude way.
Serve rather than be served.
Treat people with respect- the way you want to be treated.
Quit judging what you don’t know and haven’t experienced.
Reject vengeance and retaliation.
Embrace strangers, the left behind, the bullied, the outcast, the untouchable.
Care about the poor, the hungry, the disposesssed, the under-resourced.
Don’t be fair, be generous.
Glow with God's grace.
Wash some feet.
Quit worrying about accumulating stuff.
Don’t put things above people.
Give people a break.
Pick up the leftovers.
Keep your eyes open.
Keep your head up.