An Eye for an Eye?

Matthew 5:38-48 (New International Version, ©2010)

Eye for Eye

    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 anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

 

Love for Enemies

    43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

            An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  This was ground breaking ethical teaching for many people back in the Old Testament days, though a similar rule can be found in the Code of Hammurabi.  The Law of Moses states clearly that you cannot return more pain, more suffering, more loss to someone who has caused you harm than they afflicted upon you (Deut. 19:20-21, Ex. 21:23-25).  It is probably stated the clearest in Leviticus 24:18-20, “Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life.  Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.”

In Moses’ day, if someone knocked out one of your teeth, you were permitted to knock out one of theirs.  This was ethical progress because you couldn’t take their life, but you could seek to even the score by afflicting them with the same amount of suffering as you have had to endure.

            Again in our scripture, we find Jesus saying that the Law was good and he isn’t going to do away with it.  But what he is going to do is to build upon the Law to better represent what God’s good and perfect will is.  Limiting revenge to an equal payback for an offense is good, but Jesus takes things a little bit further.  He says, Yes, it was the practice in days of old that if someone slapped you on the face, you had the right to slap them back.  But now, my followers will choose not to repay evil for evil.  Instead, they will give the offender the opportunity to slap them on the other cheek as well.  Not only that, if they try to take your shirt, give them your cloak as well.  And if they try to make you carry something one mile, carry it two miles.  And if someone wants to borrow money, give it to them.

            That…sounds…weak.  This isn’t what strong people do.  We don’t let people push us around, we push back, and we push harder!  We don’t let people take things that belong to us.  We worked hard for the things that we have!  We don’t carry other people’s bags, we aren’t servants, we are leaders!  We don’t lend to everyone who asks, we tell them to get a job.  This is America and people need to learn to pull their selves up by their bootstraps.  That’s what our society says, anyway.  That is what our society says is effective.  But in the kingdom of God, we aren’t looking for efficacy.  We are looking for faithfulness.

            I think that the fact that these teachings of Jesus are so very different from what much of the world actually does shows just how much we have failed to take Jesus seriously.  People come up with excuses to not actually do these things.  Some people have even gone so far as to say that these teachings of Jesus were meant for a specific group of saints, or monks, or nuns, but not for everyday Christians like you and me.  Some people have said that Jesus is just showing us how much we need grace and forgiveness because we could never actually do these things.  And others have said that this is how things will be one day in heaven.  Isn’t that a nice thought?  Aren’t you glad that Jesus didn’t believe that this ethical teaching was just for heaven one day?

            1 Peter 2:23 says, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”  Jesus not only instructed his disciples to turn the other cheek, he did it.  And as followers of Jesus Christ, as his disciples today, we too are called to turn the other cheek, give our shirt and coat, go the extra mile, and give generously.

            I have spoken about this recently, so I won’t spend too much time on it here.  But I believe that Jesus is not simply telling his disciples to roll over and play possum or to let others just walk all over them.  He has a purpose in teaching these things.  And the purpose seems to be that returning violence for violence, offense for offense, doesn’t solve the problem.  What does solve the problem is when we can help others to see what they are doing and why it is wrong.  Jesus calls us to expose the injustices of this world; to reveal to others that we too are human beings, people created in the image of God.  And we deserve to be loved, not slapped.

            The apostle Paul repeats Jesus’ teachings in Romans 12 when he instructs the Roman Christians to not repay evil with evil, but instead to repay evil with good.  If an enemy is hungry, we are to feed them.  If they are thirsty, we are to give them something to drink.  The punishment for the injustices against us is not up to us.  God will judge.  We are called to love.

            Love will bring us to the last of Jesus’ antitheses in Matthew chapter 5.  Jesus begins by saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”  Half of that phrase comes from the Hebrew Bible and the other half comes from Hebrew tradition.  The Old Testament does say that we are to love our neighbor, and Jesus quotes this when he reveals what the second greatest commandment is.  But the Bible does not say that we are to hate our enemy.  It says that we are to hate evil, to hate sin, to hate injustice, but not to hate your enemy.  The teaching to hate your enemy comes from the logical thinking of the Jews.  The thinking goes something like this: If God hates evil and our enemies are evil, then we must hate them.

            But Jesus comes in with this final antithesis and says in verse 44, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  He goes on to talk about how God makes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous; those that are his friends and those who are his “enemies”.  There is nothing special about loving those who love you or greeting those who are a part of your group.  No, as Jesus’ followers, we are called to do more than that.  We are called to be perfect as God is perfect and love everyone equally.

            There is no shortage of opinions and questions of what it means to love your enemy.  Does this only apply in our personal relationships with other people, or does it apply at a national level?  And this is very much related to Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek.  Does this mean that if someone punches or slaps us that we cannot fight back?

            When we discuss these kinds of questions in the church, our minds always go to the absolute worst scenario possible and try to justify violence based on some unlikely circumstance.  I have heard people come up with situations like, “What would you do if you were walking along the side of the road and you were coming up to a bus stop and there were a bunch of kids there waiting to get on the bus.  And you see some man jump out from behind a bush with a knife and he begins to slash the kindergarteners with his knife.  What would you do?  Wouldn’t you kill him?”

            This scenario seems so unlikely to happen in real life.  But when we start trying to put ourselves in these far-out situations, we cannot do it so as to try to discredit Jesus’ teachings as nonsensical or unpractical and therefore non-applicable.  I think that the teaching of Jesus is clear.  We are to love our enemy and we are to seek non-violent ways to fix our problems and reconcile with others.

            The place that I come out on this issue is that I would never take another person’s life to save my own.  But that does leave a lot of other questions.  If I were to come across that knife-wielding, kindergartener slashing person, would I use non-lethal force to stop him?  I would like to think that I would, even if that means that I might lose my life in the process.

            I don’t have any doubt that Jesus teaches us that we should not use lethal force to save our own lives, but you could easily ask the question of yourself “Would I use lethal force to save the lives of others?”  Especially the lives of many, many others.  The best argument seems to be to be the case of the Nazi regime in Germany during WWII.  If in the middle of the Holocaust you had the opportunity to kill Adolf Hitler and save millions of Jews, would you?

            Of course for most of us this is only a theoretical question because most of us would never have been able to get close enough to kill Hitler.  However, this wasn’t just a theoretical question for one of the greatest proponents of Christian pacifism in the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer was a brilliant pastor, scholar and theologian.  He received his doctorate in theology when he was only 21 years old and worked as a professor at a number of universities in both Germany and the United States. 

            Bonhoeffer saw firsthand while he was in Germany the growing powers of the Nazi regime.  And having come to a position of pacifism based on his understandings of the teachings of Jesus, Bonhoeffer knew that he could not swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler or serve in the Germany army.  So he took a job in the United States, teaching at Union Seminary in New York.

            Bonhoeffer soon felt compelled to return to his homeland of Germany to stand up against the atrocities that were occurring there.  Bonhoeffer was soon forbidden to speak in public or publish any document because of his anti-Nazi rhetoric.  But that did not stop him.  Bonhoeffer became connected with a movement against Hitler and, though a committed pacifist, allegedly assisted in the attempted assassination of Hitler.  Bonhoeffer was captured, jailed for over 18 months, and hung.  Bonhoeffer would write from his jail cell during his 18 months of imprisonment that what he had done was wrong.  He repented for his role in the attempted assassination. 

            I am not going to stand here today and say that it would be wrong to kill Adolf Hitler.  And if you ever find yourself in some strange, far-fetched situation where a man is slicing and dicing a bunch of kindergarteners, I don’t know that it would be wrong to try to stop him, especially if you could avoid using lethal force.  But the truth is that most of us will never be in those kinds of situations and we can’t allow those rare and extremely violent situations cause us to miss Jesus’ point or to write it off as impractical.  We are called to be people of peace.  We are to be the kind of people who do not sit around idly allowing pain and suffering to occur, but instead seek creative ways to expose these evils in the world around us.  We are to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and give our clothes when someone tries to take them from us.  We are not to return evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good.  We are to love, not only our neighbor, but our enemy as well.

            But does it work?  That is a question I hear a lot.  Does it actually work to turn the other cheek and to love our enemy?

            I have mentioned the name “Clarence Jordan” a time or two from the pulpit.  Clarence Jordan was a Baptist pastor, a Bible Scholar, and a farmer.  So you know that I am going to like this guy right away.  Jordan is probably best known for his paraphrases of New Testament books, known as “The Cotton Patch Gospel” in the common language of the South in that time period.

            Jordan lived during the height of the Civil Rights movement and he lived in the Deep South.  Jordan, his wife, and another couple purchased 440 acres of land near Americus, GA in 1942 to establish a working farm where people of different races and levels of income could come together to live, work, and worship together in community.  In fact, Jordan named his farm, “Koinonia Farms”.  Koinonia is the Greek word for “community” or “fellowship.

            The mission of Koinonia Farms was to live out racial and social reconciliation.  Jordan knew that the way the people were living around him and treating people of different races was a far cry from what he understood Jesus to be teaching his followers.  Even the staunchest of church goers seemed to be missing the fact that the poor people and the African American people in their town were people made in God’s image, people for whom Jesus died.

            Jordan’s farm didn’t receive a lot of attention in their rural Georgia setting until the Civil Rights movement began to gain momentum in the South.  By the 1950’s and early 60’s, however, Koinonia Farms was seen as a threat by those who were supporters of racial segregation.  Koinonia Farms was boycotted by local businesses.  They not only couldn’t sell their crops and goods at the local markets, but they couldn’t even purchase their supplies from local stores.  The people of Americus were trying to chase Jordan and those like him out of their area.

            When the boycott didn’t do the trick, the segregationists began to resort to violence and threats.  Koinonia Farms was bombed on a number of occasions.  A roadside fruit and vegetable stand was destroyed and rebuilt frequently.  And while some people couldn’t take the pressure and living in fear, Jordan and his family stayed at Koinonia Farms and stayed focus on their mission of reconciliation.

            When Jordan refused to depart from his mission with Koinonia Farms, the Ku Klux Klan took a special interest.  The Klan organized a group of local men and they stormed Koinonia Farms one night, lighting and burning down every building on the farm but one.  Instead of burning down the home where Jordan and his family were sleeping, the Klan filled the house with bullets.  As Jordan and his family took cover in their home, they could hear the yells of the men outside.  And Jordan recognized the voices of several of the Klansmen, many of whom he thought to be good church-going people.

            The following day as the farm lay smoldering in the form of ashes and the house stood riddled with bullet holes, a reporter came out to the farm, expecting to find the Jordan family with their bags all packed and ready to leave Americus.  Instead he found Jordan, doing the work that needed to be done.  Jordan was out in a field, hoeing.

            The reporter called out to Jordan, “I heard the awful news.  I came out to do a report on the tragedy of your farm closing.”  Jordan just kept hoeing, recognizing the voice of the reporter as one that he had heard just the night before.

            The reporter kept on going, trying to get a rise out of Jordan, but Jordan just kept working, hoeing and planting instead of packing up his things and moving away from their little town.  Finally the reporter said, “Well Dr. Jordan, you’ve got two of them Ph.D’s, and you have put 14 years into this farm, and there’s nothing left of it at all.  Just how successful do you think you have been?”

            Clarence stopped hoeing.  He turned to the reporter and said quietly, yet firmly, “About as successful as the cross.  Sir, I don’t think you understand us.  What we are about is not success, but faithfulness.  We are staying.  Have a good day.” –Tim Hansel, Holy Sweat

            The apostle Paul writes in 1Corinthians 1 that we preach that Jesus Christ was crucified, and that this will be a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.  We as followers of Jesus Christ are not to seek success by the world’s standards.  By the world’s standards, Jesus Christ crucified was not success, it was a giant failure.  But in the kingdom of God, the cross stands for victory; victory of death, victory over evil, victory over the principles and powers.  Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving your coat, loving your enemy is not successful by the world’s standards.  But it is faithfulness in the kingdom of God.  And in the kingdom of God, faithfulness is the greatest success of all.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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