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The application of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” seems from our perspective as excessive and barbaric. As often occurs when we attempt to overlay our culture on a previous one, we are repulsed by the actions considered acceptable in the past. Before Christ, the words, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” was the common practice of people.
In ancient times, retaliatory damage and destruction were commonplace. An entire family or nation could be killed in retribution for a slap across the cheek. At that time, the only form of defensive was to use revenge to protect oneself and family. Therefore, God designated a limit acts of retaliation to prevent the repeated, vengeful decimation of people.
God controlled the vengeful rage of humans by identifying boundaries when one attacked in retribution. Therefore, if an opponent caused one to lose an eye or a tooth, the maximum permissible vengeance was limited to the taking of an eye or a tooth as compensation. God’s intent was the prevention of a vendetta, the escalation of revenge.
Jesus introduces an entirely new perspective when he says, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus, with these words, calls all of his followers to walk away from acts of revenge. Even today, for us to deny the feelings to avenge a wrong is difficult. We want our pound of flesh as compensation for those who cause us harm.
Jesus asks us to realign our thinking, not to satisfy our desires, but to focus on the needs of others. Jesus is calling for us to live to seek justice, not revenge. Justice, from the Christian perspective, is acting not for our benefit but others. Some people are desperately pleading for adequate food, clothing, and shelter. The failure for us to intervene for those in need is a haunting reminder that it was human injustice and vengeance that nailed Jesus to the Cross.
Exposing injustice and avoiding revenge is not easy for human beings to learn since personal desires tend to be a priority. Jesus provides some challenging ways for us to observe justice and control revenge. He suggests that a slap across the cheek not be met with violence, but turning one’s head to accept a slap from the other side. Not responding as expected causes the attacker to reevaluate the threat of intimidation. If someone arrogantly attempts to take one’s belongings, what can be more disruptive than to give up more than demanded? If forced to walk a mile, the oppressor loses control when one walks an extra mile without complaint. These actions seem foreign and self-demeaning. The fear of pain and humiliation become foremost in our minds when we encounter injustice and the desire for revenge.
Jesus did not preach these words expecting us to follow them blindly. He lived these words most noticeably during his Passion. The Roman soldiers slapping Jesus across the face only caused him to turn his head and accept many more blows. Jesus was stripped of his clothing, yet he did not resist that humiliation as the soldiers mocked him for being a king. Jesus’ struggled up the hill to Calvary in the same way. When he showed physical weakness by falling, the jeers from the crowd and solider’s beatings were ineffective in causing him to utter a single word. Because he did not cry out in pain, because he did not curse them or threaten them, the enjoyment that the soldiers expected from their cruelty evaporated.
Dramatically in Jesus’ Passion, we observe the effects of injustice. An innocent man falsely accused a criminal and punished for the sins of others. We cry out, “Where was the justice for Jesus?” Jesus could very well respond to us with the question, “How often have you walked away from those in need? Where is the justice for them?”
Jesus does not ask in vengeance God to strike these people down that mutilated his body with whips, fists and nails. He asked rather that they be forgiven for their actions. Jesus would not subscribe to “an eye for an eye or a tooth for tooth.” Instead, he showed the effects of injustice and revenge for the world for all to see.
We do not see any fear in Jesus during his Passion and Death. “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more,” (Luke 12:4.) The Roman soldiers could cause physical pain to his body, they could murder him, but they could not destroy the relationship Jesus had with his Father. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.”
Jesus was perfect in his love for all people, whether they looked upon him with love or hatred. Jesus is asking us to stretch our faith to reach out beyond the limits in our comfort. He asks us to put our faith in him, for he gives us mercy and love even as we face the pain of physical death.
Jesus asks us to strive toward perfection, using love to guide us while avoiding revenge and injustice. While we recognize that we will often fail, Jesus forgives our missteps through the power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Our continued prayers of intercession to the Lord will give us the strength to embrace the love of Christ in our daily acts.