An Eye for an Eye?

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Reading the Word

Matthew 5:38–42 (ESV)

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 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. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Understanding and Applying the Word

Most of us have probably heard the phrase “an eye for an eye” before. Many of us may not have been aware that the phrase comes from the Bible. It is found in multiple places in the Old Testament (cf. Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). This may seem odd since we would not expect the Bible to promote revenge. So we need to ask, “Why is it in the Bible?”

An eye for an eye is not a statement that promotes revenge. It is a statement about equal justice. It was a statement that sought to make sure some people did not get away with crimes while others were too severely punished. “An eye for an eye” is simply a way of saying that a punishment must fit the crime. We do not sentence a person to life in prison for going five miles per hour over the speed limit. We do not fine someone fifty dollars for homicide. The just thing to do is to make the punishment equal to the crime as best as that is possible.

In Jesus’ day, the people had perverted the original intent of this instruction and had used it to justify revenge. In our passage for today, Jesus makes a statement that is a bit surprising to those who would seek such revenge on an enemy. Jesus tells us that instead of revenge, we should not retaliate. It is important to note that Jesus is addressing individual retaliation, not the role of government and authorities who are given authority by God to enact justice in a society. Nor is Jesus denying a right to self-defense to those who face severe harm. At issue is revenge and retaliation by an individual against another individual that only serves to escalate the situation to something worse. Resisting or fleeing is often necessary to prevent more serious abuse. And love for others sometimes necessitates that we have to take further action to prevent someone from harming others. May we always seek to show love to others.

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