In today’s gospel from Mark, Jesus continues his discourse called the Sermon on the Mount. It is from a section of the Sermon which is marked with “you have heard it said… but I say to you…” He is not overturning the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses, but rather he is commenting on their misunderstanding of God’ intent in the gift of the Covenant and the Law. Misunderstanding can be taken as “you have misunderstood all along and each generation just makes it worse” – or – Jesus is telling them to “take the next step in their evolution of understanding the mysteries of God’s intent.”
The phrase “an eye for an eye” appears several times in the Hebrew Scriptures: Ex 21:22-25, Lev 24:19-21, and Dt 19:16-21. They each have their own context, but each seeks to overturn the cultural custom of blood revenge and to limit the retaliation (lex talonis). Major biblical figures such as Lemach, Sampson and Gideon were quite noted for their implementation of blood revenge. Numbers 35:9-30, points to the case of a capital crime that took life, and the sentence was death, but there was the option of fleeing to the cities of refuge/asylum. This too was to limit blood revenge.
In Jesus’ time the Sadducees seemed to interpret all the above very harshly. The Talmud, reflecting the tradition of the Pharisees, pointed strongly to compensation as an evolution in the lex talonis. The overall movement of Scripture and its interpretation was to restrict corporal punishment and substitute compensation as a counter to a culture of vengeance, retaliation, and honor killing.
Jesus seems to be teaching that the deeper understanding is to forego retaliation – especially when we think it is justice. As St. Paul offers in Romans 12:19, that is above our “pay grade” such things are the province of God: “Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
But sometimes violence is needed to achieve justice….right? Coretta Scott King speaking about violence as a way of achieving justice says that it is both impractical and immoral. She said that violence is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. “An eye for an eye” leaves everyone blind.
But that is not us…. Sure we might operate in the “tit for tat” mode, but nothing so serious as an “eye for an eye.” But then perhaps we too are blind to evolution in the gospel life to which we are called.