Hardly anyone ever speaks in favor of eye-gouging and tooth-pulling. Well, I suppose there are some dentists...
When I was growing up, my family would visit the Enchanted Forest theme park. As you may know, a town from the Wild West has been recreated in one section of the park. I remember walking past the dentist's office there, hearing cries of pre-recorded pain from within. The sign above the door read, "Dr. U. R. Hurtin, Dentist." These days, my dentist is a very kind and mild person, but I have my doubts about the profession as a whole.
Because of dentists, there may be some ambiguity about tooth-pulling. Even so, no one speaks in favor of eye-gouging. Martin Luther King said, "The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind." Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: "An-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye... ends in making everybody blind."
So perhaps it's not too surprising that Jesus would have critical things to say about the practice of "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth." The practice of maiming people for their transgressions sounds barbaric.
Actually, the original impulse was one one of restraint. To codify "Eye for an eye" into the law meant there was a limit to your vengeance. You can't take two eyes as payment for the one you have lost. You can't kill someone if they have only maimed you. You have to show restraint: An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.
Without this kind of restraint, violence would escalate. We would repay our injuries with interest. In a movie about Al Capone, Sean Connery says, "They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way!"
There is something to be said for restraint. Without it, we would all be living as dentists in Chicago. Well... you know what I mean. Without restraint, we would be in a race of competing atrocities. We would be trying to intimidate our enemies by doing worse to them than they have done to us.
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So there is merit in restraint, but Jesus is after something completely different than restraint. Jesus has no interest in maintaining a balance of violence. Listen again: ""You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person." Do not resist. That's about as far as you can get from balance. It sounds like surrender.
Jesus offers a few examples of how we should respond to violence. If someone slaps you on the right check, offer up the other side of your face. If you're forced to walk one mile, volunteer to walk an extra mile. If you're driving through Chicago and get car-jacked by dentists, leave some money for gas on the dashboard.
This goes way beyond restraint. Jesus is asking people who suffer injustice to suffer a little more. He is asking us to surrender what our enemies haven't already taken by force.
Talk about unbalanced! This is crazy talk, Jesus.
A few scholars believe that Jesus is offering some secret advice here. They believe that Jesus is quietly teaching people how to be subvert the power of their oppressors. I like this idea. I'd much rather be subversive than offer my face for target practice.
During the lifetime of Jesus, there was an established way of hitting someone insignificant. If someone was beneath you, then were expected to hit them with the back of your hand. You would only punch someone if they were of equal status. This is because punching someone amounts to combat. And you don't enter into combat with inferiors. You smack them upside the head with the back of your hand. I don't know if this is true, but it seems plausible. And if you smack someone with the back of your right hand, you will hit them on the right side of their face. So maybe it's significant that Jesus says, "If someone hits you on the right cheek, offer the other side of your face." By inviting a punch to the left instead of a slap to the right, maybe Jesus is offering a way for people to stand as equals before their attackers.
And maybe when Jesus said to walk an extra mile, he was hoping to subvert the authority of Roman soldiers. In those days, a Roman soldier could grab a random bystander and say, "You. Carry my stuff." The civilian could be forced to carry military gear for one mile. Beyond that, the soldier would be breaking the law. And so, by walking an extra mile, someone pressed into service might hope to make the soldier a little nervous.
And maybe leaving gas money on the dash of your stolen car is a way to get the carjacker to a gas station, where security cameras can assist in their apprehension.
I'd like to think that Jesus is offering oppressed people a way to assert their own dignity and worth. Not only would this interpretation reflect nicely on Jesus, it would allow me to overlook the scary details. I could walk away from this passage and think, "The important thing is that I preserve my own sense of dignity and self-worth."
It's not a bad lesson. But I don't think it's THE lesson. "You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, preserve your own sense of dignity and self-worth." Nope. I think there's more to it.
Turn your face. Walk an extra mile. Jesus is asking people who suffer injustice to suffer a little more. He is asking us to surrender what our enemies haven't already taken by force. Why on earth would we ever do such a thing?
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"You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." If you can hear this without freaking out a little bit, I don't think you're really hearing it. We are called to love our enemies. We are called to give our very best to the people who least deserve it. And for love, there is no limit. There is no ceiling. There is no letter of the law. We can't just stay within certain parameters of balanced animosity.
We are called to love our enemies. Instead of giving our enemies what is fair, we are asked to give them what is best.
We are called to love our enemies – not because of who they are, but because of who God is. God is love. God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good. God sends rain for the righteous and the unrighteous. The love of God is boundless. And we are called to be the people of God.
Jesus is after something much different than restraint. We are the vanguard of a new kingdom. And we are not trapped behind the barricades of self-defense. We are moving forward. When we love, God is revealed.
Even to our enemies.
Maybe especially to our enemies, because they will least expect it. If we can love our enemies, then something has truly shifted in the universe. If we can love our enemies, then something has happened that cannot be explained within the parameters of this world.
If you can love your enemy, then there is something different about you. In that difference, God is revealed.
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Jesus is after something much different than restraint. We are invited to a new way of seeing. When we see the world with eyes of love, war is unthinkable. It is unthinkable to drop bombs on the people you love. Love cannot be expressed with attack drones.
Our call to peacemaking goes far beyond the scope of war. War is only one small fragment of our lives together. For most of us, war remains distant and abstract. For most of us, the real work of love happens much closer to home. We learn peacemaking in how we treat each other.
Every time another driver raises your blood-pressure, you stand at the frontier of love. Every time someone drives you crazy at work, you stand at the frontier of love. Every time you visit the dentist, you stand at the frontier of love. Okay, maybe that last one is just me.
In any case, the Biblical call to peacemaking is something for us to practice every day. It is not something we dust off with the outbreak of war. It is habitual to our way of seeing. We are the vanguard of God's kingdom. Instead of restraining ourselves, we are called to take the offensive, to extend God's love beyond all reasonable boundaries.
"You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."