Eye and Tooth

This coming Sunday is the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we established a large context and noted the continuity with the posts of last week noting that the lessons continue to make clear the personal responsibility of freely entering into the covenant relationship with God – and to answer the question, what does it mean to truly be God’s people? In today’s post we consider the fifth example used by Jesus as it is one that perhaps most goes “against the grain” of our human reaction.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.  If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. (Mt 5:38-41)

There is perhaps no more familiar line from the OT than an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” which often is understood as a sanction for revenge. Here Jesus challenges the idea of retribution, revenge, a tit-for-tat model of justice – and the means by which people seek redress in judicial arenas.  For some communities, these verses form the key verses for their belief in non-violent resistance.

Jesus quotes Exodus 21:24–25 (as well, Lev 24:20; Dt 19:21; cf. Isa 50:4–9; Luke 6:29–30) which expresses the OT principle of proportional retribution in kind (lex talionis) considered a principle of legal rights throughout the Ancient Near East.  This principle was older and more widely recognized than the Mosaic law, as it was already found in the Code of Hammurabi (eighteenth century bc) with the same examples of eye and tooth. The codification of proportional retribution was not intended as a sanction for revenge, but to prevent the excesses and escalation of blood-feuds. Proportional retribution was intended to establish a principle wherein the feud was moved from society into the courtroom where the legal system ensured that the punishment did not exceed the crime. Nonetheless, what becomes embedded in society is a form of law seeking justice with some sense of equity. It is an institutionalized limited retribution.

By Jesus’ time, physical penalties had generally been replaced by financial damages. When the idea of compensatory damages replaced a personal retribution, a more “civilized” process seems to be available. But does Jesus have in mind the legal setting? Many of the examples that follow do have the “courtroom” setting explicitly stated or at least lurking the background. Jesus never seems to reject the idea of the courtroom, but one wonders if Jesus intends the community of disciples to have any part of such proceedings. Paul seems to have this same concern in mind in 1 Corinthians 6.  It is conceivable that such legal proceedings displace the community’s search for God’s justice and instead settle for a human justice.

Or is there something deeper here? Is Jesus telling the disciples not to seek to replace one human institution (civil court) with another (religious court) even if one believes the second instance will rightly arbitrate God’s will?  If true, then far from simply opposing brutality or even physical retaliation, Jesus is teaching the disciples to forego their natural instinct for even legitimate retribution – and he offers alternatives that go “against the grain” of human reaction. But perhaps the “grain” is simply the hardness of the human heart.

Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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