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Matthew 5: 38-42 – Week 11 Ordinary Time, Monday (King James Audio Bible, Spoken Word)

The reading for Sunday Year 7(A) continues with Daily Bible Verses For Lent | Love Your Enemies | Neighbours In Christ | Christian Faith | Spiritual Healing

38 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

The Old Testament regulations concerning retribution can seem very brutal by modern standards. In Exodus we have these words:

22 ¶ If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21: 22-25)

In Leviticus we have these words:

17 ¶ And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.
18 And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast.
19 And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him;
20 Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again. (Leviticus 24: 17-20)

It may surprise us to hear that these were actually quite socially progressive measures, limiting vengeance, outlawing excessive, punitive retaliation for offences caused, and so working to avoid endless feuds while satisfying honour with justice. The legal framework was concerned to moderate behaviour, and so to build social cohesion.

Such was the justice of the Old Law. Now Jesus announces a new law of love, a new justice which should exceed the justice of the Pharisees, and which is also a new mode of relationship between people and between people and God.

When we are offended or injured, Jesus teaches us not to demand pay-back, an eye for our eye, a tooth for our tooth, but rather to forgive, and where there was hatred, to bring instead to the situation the opposite of hatred, which is love.

It is an extraordinary teaching. Some would say this tends toward injustice. When in our courts a person has been found guilty of committing a criminal offence, then our society demands that person suffer a penalty, whether through a custodial sentence or perhaps through a fine or an order of community service. For violent crimes against people, we don’t tend to decide that a person is guilty and then leave it at that, with no punishment.

When seeking justice, though, we do delegate this function to state agencies, and when a criminal is punished, that is said to be paying a debt to society, rather than to the victims of the crime. Our justice system is not a matter of personal vengeance. We may imagine how it would be if we were personally in charge of deciding the punishment of a person who had grievously harmed someone we most love. Perhaps it is in this thought that we realise what Jesus is saying to us. The possibility of rage, a need for vengeance, hatred – evil begetting evil, in a terrible, destructive cycle, evil consuming itself. When confronted by evil, Jesus tells us not to go there, but only to love. Here, in microcosm, we have the divine intervention in history, which is Jesus.

Jesus’ message is not, then, one of craven passivity in the face of evil behaviour. Turning the other cheek is not a passive response; it is an active game-changer. Refusing hatred, abiding by love instead, there is nonetheless a question, a challenge, a turning around, exposing the hollowness of evil and hoping to lead the aggressor beyond that terrible desire to make others feel anger, bitterness, shame – those bad states of mind in which the aggressor is trapped and which he or she tries to drive others to experience also.

Jesus message is socially and legally revolutionary. It is also a spiritual revolution. This, after all, is what Jesus came into the world to do. He came to love us and to give to us his body, so that, undeserving as we are, we may nonetheless be saved and come to heaven. If God thought of us in terms of the ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ mode of justice, none of us would be saved. Our redemption through Jesus is an excess. It is, we might think, unjust. Only because of Jesus’ self-sacrifice is justice satisfied. This is the great excess of love on which we draw.

‘And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ Isaiah 2: 4.

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Concluding Prayer

King of heaven and earth, Lord God,
rule over our hearts and bodies this day.
Sanctify us,
and guide our every thought, word and deed
according to the commandments of your law,
so that now and for ever
your grace may free and save us.
We make our prayer through our Lord.

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