Thursday, September 3, 2009

This is an article I wrote for a Safeharbor meditation/commentary series on Matthew 5:21-48.

38 "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Batman is the quintessential antihero—the protagonist of the story who exacts justice, but displays major character flaws and a dark side. There is a struggle within Bruce Wayne, the bat-man. He desires to bring criminals to justice; but, in so doing, he takes out his own pain on those who we deem deserving of it. Batman sometimes goes beyond justice.

In the Old Testament, there was a principal, referred to by today's legal experts as lex talonis, which serves to ensure that the retribution apportioned on behalf of an offended party does not exceed the nature of the crime. The phrase that captures the essence of that principal comes from Exodus 21:24—"Eye for eye, tooth for tooth...." This concept is often misunderstood. It would seem, when taken out of context, that this principal would have us do to others what they have done to us. In actuality, this principal is not a personal ethic; it was a national standard of justice, to be applied in the Hebrew legal system.

In the above passage, Jesus does not reject the idea of justice, on which legal systems are based. Rather, he rejects the use of "eye-for-eye" retaliation as a personal ethic, and replaces that notion with the idea of self sacrifice. Again he uses the formula, "You have heard that it was said,...But I say to you...." The problem is not with the idea of lex talonis. The problem is with the improper application of it.

To illustrate what he's getting at Jesus uses 3 examples from Jewish daily life:
1) Suppose someone slaps you on the cheek. In Jesus' day a slap on the cheek was a common insult, which would normally be returned. This retaliation could easily escalate to a knock-down-drag-out brawl.
2) Suppose someone sues your for your tunic. The tunic was a simple garment worn under an outer cloak. The cloak was often required as collateral in legal cases.
3) Suppose someone forces you to go a mile with them. The Persian government began the practice of forcing commoners to help couriers, on official government business, along their way. The Roman's borrowed this practice. In Jesus' day, Roman soldiers had the power to conscript common citizens to help carry their military supplies.[1]

In each of these cases, Jesus says that his disciples should not only resist the temptation to retaliate, but that they let go of pride and humbly extend grace—turn the extra cheek, give the shirt off your back, go the extra mile.

We live in a culture that celebrates justice. And, with good reason; justice is a godly virtue. But we have sometimes perverted justice. We celebrate over the gruesome beating of the bad guy. The antihero lacks grace and mercy; and we put him on kids' lunchboxes. For Jesus, however, the hero, the strong person, the one who triumphs, the true disciple is the one who is able to stop the cycle of retaliation and begin a cycle of grace. Jesus celebrates when grace is served. How has grace been served in your life?


[1] Mark Moore. The Chronological Life of Christ, volume 1. College Press, 1996, pg. 197.


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