‘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.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. — Matthew 5:38-48 NRSV
You know, sometimes Jesus makes it almost too hard to be a follower, a “good” one, anyway. This is one of those passages that I really have to struggle with, and, I’m afraid, most of the time I fail miserably at it.
The law about “an eye for an eye” was a definite improvement over what had gone before. No matter what the offense at that time, it could be a death sentence. Steal something? If the owners of the stolen property caught the thief they could kill him, even if it nothing more was taken than a handful of grain. Cause a scratch on someone’s arm? Well, that could get you just as dead, under that legal system anyway. Lex talonis, the law of “an eye for an eye” was a great improvement. Hammurabi, the Mesopotamian king known for setting up a whole code of laws (of which this was one), limited the punishment to that of being equal to the crime. If I ran over your foot with my ox cart, you could run over my foot as punishment, but no more than that. It was an ideal of equal punishment for the crime or offense. In the Bible, the same principle showed up in Exodus 21:23-24 which states, “[i]f any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” There were other laws that had some gradations, such as those involving injury to a slave or a pregnant woman, but on the whole, it was a pretty equal law. I could live with that, but Jesus took it to the next level.
Thinking about this “life for life” thing, it occurs to me that that’s the law in this country — at least at times, for certain people, and covering certain situations. It seems to me that quite often who commits the crime and their ability (or not) to afford a top-notch lawyer to defend them (or to prosecute the one or ones who wronged them). Justice is no longer a thing of “You can only hit me as hard as I hit you in the first place.”
I wonder what the courthouse would be like if we honestly and truly did the Jesus thing of turning the other cheek? We talk a lot about being a “Christian” nation, but when push comes to shove, you push me and I’ll push you back twice as hard. Being Christian has nothing to do with justice if it means getting our own back (with a little extra for our pain and suffering, of course). We accept that the saints were, probably on the whole, a more forgiving bunch, like Francis of Assisi who, when confronted by his father, took off his clothes and walked off starkers rather than fight over them. Incidents like that are probably the reason that the ratio of saints to less-than-saintly people is rather low.
I have to ask myself how often I turn the other cheek to people who, in my view or in fact, have injured me in some way. The answer is a paltry “Not very often.” There are times I fight back and other times when I simply just walk away, saying some not-so-nice things under my breath. Prayers for them? Usually I fall into the case of the Psalmist who prayed that God would do some pretty hefty punishments on his enemies. How many times do I at least think of how I could get even — or better yet, ahead? The answer to that is far more often than is good for me, even if I never actually act on it.
Jesus gives us some really tough assignments. I wonder what would happen if I were a little more “turn the other cheek” and a little less eager to get my own back plus a bit? What would this country be like if we who claim to be Christian were little less quick to claim that we’re a “Christian nation” and a little quicker to actually practice what we hear preached and preach ourselves? What would that mean in my life it I were to concentrate on that homework and less on getting even? I have a feeling that writing a research paper or balancing my budget would seem like child’s play compared to that.
Perfection may be totally out of my reach, but that that doesn’t excuse me for not trying a little bit harder in the forgiveness area. I think God and I need to have a conversation about a few people right now. I’m sure glad God doesn’t work 8-5, Monday thru Friday only.