The story is repeated on every elementary school playground, any Monday through Friday. Two sixth graders,
Billy and Joey, get into it at recess. Soon the cause of the dispute has been
forgotten, and the fighting takes on a life of its own. A teacher steps in and
separates the two boys. Then back in the classroom, Billy trips Joey. Then when the teacher steps out for a moment, Joey writes on Billy’s schoolwork. Finally, after school the two boys fight it out in the vacant lot across the street. By this time they are being cheered on by other students shouting, “Fight, fight!”
“Boys will be boys”—we
say. However, if such brawls could
be contained to elementary age children—perhaps it could be accepted. However, that pattern of revenge continues into high school, college, and adulthood.
Someone feels offended by someone else—he then brings a gun to school to
settle things—someone is killed, others are injured, and lives are ruined. We
have seen that close up at “Columbine High School” in April 1999 and at “VA Tech
in April 2007. We have seen it on our highways—someone is cut off in traffic—and soon in anger, a motor vehicle
is transformed into a deadly weapon. Finally, this past week an athletic fan
of a rival sports team poisoned several trees at Auburn University where fans celebrate victories.
In today’s lectionary
reading are Jesus’ words from his “Sermon on the Mount,” “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.” Like those first disciples, we are puzzled by those words. Just
what was Jesus telling us to do? Was he telling us that we could not protect
ourselves from an armed robber that invades our homes? Was he telling us that
we could not stop a terrorist intent on killing and maiming countless lives? Was he telling us that we have to just lie down and take it, that we have to be the
punching bags of the world? Was that what Jesus was telling us?
If so, that goes against
all human nature. When we have been hurt, we want to hurt back—when we
have been unfairly criticized, we want to criticize back—when we have been attacked, we want to attack back. However, like the feud between the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s, the violence accelerates—it
gets worse and worse—each blow inflicted is answered by an even more violent blow. In
such exchanges, everyone loses.
In the 1950’s we developed a nuclear defense policy called “MADD,” which stood for “Mutual
Assured Destruction.” That
policy meant that in a nuclear war between the USA and the Soviet Union—that each side had so many nuclear weapons, that it easily could destroy the other side many times over. “MADD” therefore was a “standoff.” Both the USA and Soviet Union knew that in nuclear war, there would be no winners—only losers. In
the end, everyone would die. The only survivors would be the cockroaches. It was “MAD!” It still is “MAD!” In such retaliation, everyone
The law, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” first had come from Deuteronomy 19: It was an effort to limit the human impulse to take unlimited revenge on the offender. Under the law, the punishment could not exceed the physical harm actually done. If someone put out someone’s eye, the punishment therefore could not be the taking of both eyes, or
the killing of the offender, or the cutting off both hands. Likewise, if someone
hit another person and knocked out one of their teeth, the punishment could not exceed the knocking out of one of his teeth.
It all had to be “Tit For Tat.” Justice
was done in the balancing of the books—the punishment could not exceed the wrong initially done. No one could administer a punishment greater than an “eye for
an eye, or a tooth for a tooth.” Since Moses’ time, Jewish scholars
had sought to clarify what Moses had meant. By Jesus’ time, financial restitution
had come to be allowed as compensation for a harm done to an innocent party.
In his “Sermon on the
Mount,” Jesus acknowledged the purpose of the restriction. Yet, unlike
other Jewish rabbis, Jesus completely overturned the entire concept of measured revenge. Jesus said, “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.” Recent New Testament scholars have said that Jesus was not referring to restraining
a thief or a terrorist from doing harm. Rather, Jesus was referring to intractable
self-serving legal battles. Such lawsuits were common. They were tried in pagan Roman courts, they made Christians the subject of gossip, and the lawsuits resulted
in the complainants spending all their money on seeking legal restitution.
Perhaps Jesus’ disciples
had a puzzled look on their faces. Therefore, he gave them three analogies to illustrate what he meant about revenge: “…If
anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” For
a right-handed person to slap someone on the right cheek, meant that one had to use the back of one’s hand to do the
slapping. This kind of slap was considered more of an insult than a physical
injury done to the victim. Jewish law even recognized that the one receiving
such an intentional insult could petition the court and be financially compensated for “pain and suffering.” However, for one to turn the other cheek, that meant that one was not going to seek
revenge for the insult. One was refusing to be “sucked into” a quarrel.
“…And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…” A Jew wore two articles of clothing. The inner garment was like a long nightshirt, which the court could take in payment for a debt. Therefore, the man might literally “lose his shirt” in court. A Jewish man also wore an outer garment—a loose fitting cloak. That cloak could be worn both in the daytime on the streets, and for wrapping up in at night to sleep. It
was an essential garment of clothing. Therefore, a Judge in a court of law could
not take one’s cloak as payment for a debt. Once again, Jesus’ words
are an analogy. They are not meant to be taken literally. For to give up both
one’s nightshirt, and one’s cloak, would leave the victim literally naked in the courtroom. In practice, Jesus probably was referring to the foreclosure
and the seizing of Jewish lands by the Roman government for back taxes. Jesus
knew that to seek to respond legally to such a land-grab by the Roman government was fruitless. One simply was not to allow one’s identity to be possessed by what one possessed. In Christianity, one had to be willing to travel light.
“…And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Jesus was referring to a legal statue used by Roman soldiers and government
officials. Such officials could compel Jewish citizens to surrender temporarily
their pack animals or grain boats in order to carry military equipment for one mile. The
distance of one mile had been specified so as not to cause an undue burden on the businessperson. In actual practice, Roman soldiers with the flat side of his
spear frequently would tap Jewish citizens on their shoulder and demand that they carry their gear for one mile. This forced labor caused much resentment among the Jews. Jesus
was telling his disciples that instead of harboring and feeding such bitter resentments, they should just pass it off. They should not allow such resentments to take over their lives.
Jesus’ reason for going
beyond “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was far greater than preserving one’s emotional and spiritual
energy. Hear what he said, “You have heard it said that, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” The “love” that Jesus was talking about was not a “warm, fuzzy-feeling love.” To have “love” for a Roman soldier who forces one to do manual labor—to have “love”
for someone that was seeking to legally take away one’s possessions—to have
“love” for a face-slapping prosecutor has nothing to do with having
emotional feelings for them. Rather, to have “love” meant that Jesus’
disciples were to stop focusing their emotional and spiritual energies upon themselves. Instead,
they were to seek to think outside of themselves and their personal feelings. They
were to see the offender from God’s point of view. God loves even the worst
persons in the world. God loves indiscriminately. The sun shines on, and the rain falls upon even the worst offenders. As
Jesus’ disciples, Jesus invites us to imitate God’s behavior.
As Presbyterians, we never
have advocated pacifism, as had some other denominations. Instead, we have understood
Jesus’ commandment as allowing for a police force and military for the restraining of the forces of evil. At the same time, we Presbyterians have advocated for the measured use of such forces for the sake of the
thief, terrorist, and the community at large. As such, we Presbyterian are to
live out the gospel story within our community—our world community. The
thief and the terrorist likewise are a part of that world community. Our calling
as Jesus’ disciple therefore is to work toward the healing of that world community so that theft and terrorism will
no longer exist.
Two young teenagers began
brawling in a Bedouin community in the Middle East. By accident, one of the young men killed the other
young man. The crowd was infuriated. They
demanded that the murderer be beheaded. They cried out that it was to be “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—a life for a life.
The young man fled for his life. He ran until he got to the tent of a
desert Sheik. Falling down in front of the Sheik’s tent, he grabbed the
tent-post and begged for sanctuary. The old sheik heard the young man’s
screams for mercy, and he came out. According to tribal law, he granted the young man the sanctuary of his camp.
Soon, the angry mob came
for the young man. They demanded that the sheik hand him over to them for execution. However, the old sheik told them that he had given the young man sanctuary. The mob continued to insist that the sheik hand the young man over to them. The sheik continued to say, “No!” “But,”
someone finally shouted, “The man he killed was your only son.” The
old sheik paused for a moment. He then looked up at the angry mob. Through tear-filled eyes he told them, “Then I will raise this young man as my only son, and he will
inherit all that I have.”
An old hymn goes as follows:
“Such love, such wondrous
love, such wondrous love
That God should love a sinner such as I
How wonderful is love like this.”
(C. Bishop, R. Harkness@
1926, 1956 Lillenas Publishing Co)
Such love, such love is God’s love for
offenders such as us.
As Christ’s baptized people—
people who have been claimed and named—
we are to share that love with others.