My father and I often have quite interesting discussions on politics and world news. My father comes from a Middle Eastern background so his solution to crime is quite simplistic. If they steal something – cut off their hands. They won’t steal again.
That sort of logic is rife in our society and not just Middle Eastern culture.
In fact people often attribute that teaching to Islamic Sharia Law but in today’s Gospel we see it’s origin much earlier as part of the law under Moses. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” can be found three times in the Old Testament, in Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. It was a retributive justice meant to even up the scales of justice.
If you hurt someone then justice meant allowing the hurt person or their representative to issue the same hurt to the person causing the hurt.
Neither of these examples are what Jesus calls on Christians to follow.
Cutting off a thief’s hand may prevent them from stealing again but it doesn’t change their heart.
Paying back, like for like, also does not change a person’s heart but can in fact inflame a situation that can cause a further retaliation. But the other problem with “eye for eye” is that it doesn’t heal the hurt of the victim. If you hurt me and in turn I hurt you back, that doesn’t relieve my pain. That doesn’t restore the relationship that may have once existed. That’s why Paul when speaking about love in 1st Corinthians says “love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5).
Retributive justice or retributive punishment does not heal the hurt experienced by the victim. Jailing a murderer for life does not bring back the life of a loved one. Even the death penalty doesn’t heal the hurt because at the end of the day you have the memory of your loved one losing their life. We saw an example of this a couple weeks ago in a tragic accident in Thailand where a man accidentally killed his girlfriend when he hit her with a jet-ski. The girl’s family chose to stand by him and not press charges. Insisting on his imprisonment would not bring their daughter back but forgiving him allowed their healing. Jesus is speaking here to Christians and he is speaking about our healing when we have been hurt physically, emotionally, spiritually or in any way at all. Because when we are hurt our faith can be in danger as we take justice into our own hands. But it is also an opportunity to grow in our faith because human retaliation is limiting. It’s an eye for an eye – it’s a tooth for a tooth. It is limited to these.
So Jesus goes on from there and talks about going the extra mile – turning the other cheek – giving your coat as well as your shirt. Jesus doesn’t ask us to do this so we become known as pushovers but so we go beyond the limitations that humanity places on us. And then Jesus pushes us even further beyond going the extra mile. He says that if we want to experience the full experience of divine blessings – love your enemy.
So not only has Jesus progressed from foregoing revenge and retribution, to going the extra mile – now he is going beyond all human limitations and leading us to the most extraordinary level of blessing by loving our enemy. But Jesus doesn’t lead us where he himself has not gone. As he himself was nailed to the cross he goes beyond expectations. They expected Jesus to show his strength by coming down from the cross: You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27:40-44)
But instead of showing his strength by human actions he showed divine action and loved his enemies: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Jesus wants us to live more than the limitations of everyday life. He says: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10). But life to the full is found in very different places to where human life expects it to be found. We would normally look for it in physical place – in possessions, money, enjoyment. While life can be experienced there, it is always limiting. Life to the full is found where you would not expect to find it. It’s so much like God that he seems to hide blessings where we would not, or even should not find them.
As Paul said – God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong – he chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. (1 Corinthians 1:27) Luther referred to God as the God of the opposites. He hides blessings in curses – as St Paul says in Galatians: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13) He hides victory in defeat – what was intended to shame and defeat Jesus saw the cross become his throne.
So God has also hidden blessings in humility – turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving up the rest of our possessions to those who have already taken them – and the crowning glory – loving our enemies. Jails and punishments have their place in today’s societies But where does a hurting person go for rest, support and healing? Where does a person rejected by society turn for help without judgment? Where can one show up and not be judged? There’s an acceptance that shines through the church and the people of God. This love and acceptance of neighbour is what Jesus means when he says to love one another as I have loved you. (John 13:34,35)
Like the other teachings of Jesus we have heard, they are hard to take in. Loving enemies, forgiving negative experiences, giving and expecting nothing in return, offering mercy instead of demanding justice – this is God’s story. God placed a rainbow promise in the sky even though every inclination of the human heart was evil, (Genesis 6:5) God made manna to fall from heaven, even though the Israelites had done nothing but complained. In the parable of the vineyard owner, God pays the one–hour workers the same as the eight–hour workers giving them not what they deserve but what they need. (Matthew 20:1-16) In the parable of the Prodigal Son, we experience a God who rejoices when a sinner comes home. (Luke 15:11-32) And so the teachings of Jesus continue. God gives us grace instead of judgment. God gives us blessing instead of curse. God gives us comfort instead of condemnation and now asks us to go and do likewise to our neighbour (see Luke 10:37) Loving our enemies and turning the other cheek goes against our human nature.
We live in a world where if we are wronged we press charges. There is room for that but there also needs to be room for mercy and forgiveness so we don’t harbour anger in our hearts but begin to heal. This negative reaction to the bad things in life is learned behaviour and is part of our original sin of seeing ourselves as the centre of the universe. God asks us to hand judgment over to him. It’s hard, because like Adam our Even, we want to be God. But God asks us to hand judgment over to him so we can heal and also be the healing for others. In the Gospels Jesus gives the hurting people grace. And he gives us grace and the blessing of unconditional love. And now Jesus asks us to do the same – to take the risk by picking up our cross and following him. (Matthew 16:24) These words are not spoken to the entire world who would not understand Jesus’ unconditional love. These words are spoken to his disciples, to believers who know Jesus and his love.
A love that saw him turn his cheek to be crucified. Who gave not just his clothing but his entire life. Who loved his enemies so much that he asked his Father to forgive them while they were nailing him to the cross. May that self-sacrificing love empower you to go and do likewise.