Summary: Should we avenge ourselves?

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An Aye to an Eye for an Eye?

Matthew 5:38-42

The Bible indeed teaches “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. In this, Jesus is quoting the Scripture. Seeing that we have established that we have already established in our study on the Sermon on the Mount that what Jesus is demonstrating here is the deficiency of the Pharisees doctrine and practice of the teaching of Scripture, we must also look here for what was deficient, At the same time, we must also remember Jesus’ words earlier in the sermon that every jot and tittle of the Law and the Prophets must be fulfilled. So Jesus cannot be teaching anything here which contradicts Scripture. We have also seen that Jesus puts His own words on par with that of Scripture itself. So we must see that there is a harmony between the words of the Law and Prophets and His own.

To understand what Jesus is saying here, we need to go back to the world of the Old Testament in the days of Moses. One of the places which “an eye for an eye” is mentioned is in Exodus 21:24, the chapter after the giving of the Ten Commandments. If one follows the dating the Scripture assigns to the Exodus, then the time of this saying is roughly the time of the great king and lawgiver Hammurabi of Babylon. Hammurabi expressed a similar sentiment to that recorded by Moses at the behest of God. The context was that of limiting personal revenge for offenses of someone else against him/her. One of the limits was to establish an independent court to determine if the injury done was intentional or not. The other was to limit the punishment to fit the crime. One could not take two eyes in revenge for an eye or two teeth for a tooth. This was meant to prevent blood feuds and escalation between family groups like our proverbial Hatfields and McCoys. So the establishment of this law of retribution, though it seems harsh to us today, was really a means of justice. The punishment could not exceed the crime. Even today, this is widely held. Because the Bible says it, then it is still the expression of God’s will on the matter.

So does Jesus cancel the Law when He says not to avenge one’s self? Doesn't the true disciple of Jesus to whom the Sermon on the Mount is addressed have a right to seek redress when one is wronged? Of course, Scripture says that the believer has the wright to seek redress from being wronged. So what gives here when Jesus says not to resist the “evil one”? Jesus by using the formula “but I say unto you” is giving full authority to what He is about to say, so we had best listen. He says not to resist the evil one, then with the strong Greek word for “but” He introduces to His true disciples what we should do instead when we are insulted. There is some discussion of whether the slap on the cheek is a real act of wounding or just a means of insult. Even if it is only an insult, we can remember that this kind of behavior was used as a challenge to a duel in which real blood was shed. A war was fought between the English and the Spanish over the insult of cutting off the ear of a British Captain named Jenkins. The wound was a real one, but the insult was deeper than the wound itself. A war ensued where real blood was shed. In other words, just the insult itself if it brings on retaliation and increasing bloodshed is actually contrary to the intent of “an eye for an eye” which was to limit taking personal revenge.

Jesus offers a strange answer to the law limiting retribution which was intended to limit violence to the wound inflicted. There is a sense of escalation here. Instead of offering a slap of insult in response which was equivalent to accepting an escalation of violence, the escalation was instead to offer the other cheek as well. In other words it was inviting the perpetrator to offer the slap he deserved to the victim that he had just insulted. This idea of retaliation is further developed by Jesus saying that if one is sued for his cloak, overpay the judgment by giving the accuser the inner garment as well. Of course, this would leave one virtually naked if not totally naked. Being naked or nearly so was an act of utter shame. Today, it seems to be glorified. People are only too willing to expose themselves. But this was unthinkable in Jesus day. Even suing for one’s cloak, which was what kept one warm at night was seen as an injustice as a pledged cloak had to be returned at night according to the Law.

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