Nearly everyone has heard the phrase, "An eye for an eye." People, however, often have a mistaken notion of what it means. Gandhi is famously, even if probably erroneously, credited with saying, "An eye for an eye will make the world blind," as an argument for pacifism. This jejune use of the phrase "an eye for an eye" demonstrates the worldly misunderstanding of what it actually means in context. This phrase "an eye for an eye" is often used by people to justify retaliation against another person to get even for some wrong that was done to them. After all, the Bible says, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But that isn't really what that phrase means at all. Jesus, in Matthew chapter five, is referring back to what is written in Exodus 21 before making his point:
When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined as the woman's husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, and stripe for stripe (Exodus 21:22-25).
This passage, far from being an authorization to exact revenge on those who wrong you like some kind of Biblically sanctioned Beatrix Kiddo, comes from Israelite civil law. The government has this authority from God, through his law, to punish wrongdoing and exact retribution. In this passage from Exodus we see the guide which the civil authorities were to follow - "An eye for an eye." Or, as we might say today, "The punishment must fit the crime." The Pharisees interpreted this passage in the selfish and individualistic way common wisdom prods us all to - that each individual has the right to take revenge and to exact compensation for himself (Kretzmann, 1921). Jesus, however, brings us back to the proper perspective. It is not the duty, or even the right, of an individual to exact revenge for himself. To the contrary, Jesus' explanation of how individuals are to act toward each other provides the basis for another familiar saying - "turn the other cheek". Jesus' interpretation is supported by the Word of God as recorded in Leviticus:
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:17-18).
Rather than being a pronouncement of civil law dealing with how individuals relate to each other in the civil realm and mediated by the civil authorities, this passage from Leviticus governs the attitude individuals are to have toward one another as, well, individuals. God explains that he his holy and that he wants his holiness to be reflected in the lives and conduct of his people. God pays back evildoers, so thoughts of personal revenge and violence are prohibited (The Lutheran Study Bible, 2008):
The LORD is a God who avenges. O God who avenges, shine forth...The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and vents his wrath against his enemies (Psalm 94:1; Nahum 1:2).
Kretzmann provides the following explanation:
There is a climax in the examples chosen by Christ; injury goes from bad to worse. There will be times and circumstances when love will be ready patiently to suffer the repetition of the same injury: the disgrace of being struck with the palm of the open hand, the humiliation of giving up the more costly mantle or toga together with the tunic or undergarment, the demand and even the compulsion, coming probably from a soldier, to accompany him for some distance and assist him with his baggage. A Christian will, so far as his person alone is concerned, render such exacted service cheerfully and do more than is asked, rather than submit to the inevitable in a sullen manner. On the other hand, of course, such passive behavior must cease as soon as it comes into conflict with the law of love. A disciple of Christ has duties toward his family, his community, his country, which will sometimes compel him to protect and defend them against injustice and insult. But for the individual it is true: he that magnanimously bears, overcomes. Rather than harbor evil, vengeful thoughts and desires, the Christian will be ready to render assistance whenever this is needed (Kretzmann, 1921).
This attitude of Christ, however, goes against every instinct we have as human beings. This should not surprise us, though, since our instincts, just like every other part of us, is corrupt and sinful. We are not supposed to retaliate against our neighbor for the wrongs committed against us, but we do. Rather than fighting with the one who would argue, we should settle out disagreements, even when that means giving up more of what is rightfully ours. When people say things about us that are not true in an attempt to hurt our reputation, or they tell us lies, it is our natural instinct to respond in kind - to "tell them off" or start airing their secret sins as well in order to hurt or embarrass them. When they are hurting the way we are hurt because of what they have done to us, then we will feel good. We will be vindicated. It feels so good, at least to our flesh - to our sinful and depraved human nature - which should be our first clue to stop and think about our reaction. This is not how Jesus reacted to those who persecuted him. St. Peter writes:
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued trusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:22-10-23).
If anyone has a case for retaliation because of wrong-doing, it is Jesus. The Scriptures tell us that he, Jesus - God in human flesh - committed no sin. Not only did he suffer the injustice of being falsely accused, tried, and punished by men, the sinless son of God was made to be sin so that we could escape God's wrath. Though he was mocked by his lying accusers, Jesus never responded in kind. Instead he relied on God the Father who will justly punish the wicked and reward the righteous (The Lutheran Study Bible, 2008). The sinless Jesus bore the sin of the world and suffered the punishment that rightly should belong to us sinners on the cross, as the wages of sin is death. St. Peter continues:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Peter 2:24-25).
No one in this sinful, fallen world is immune from suffering, and Christians especially are not. Jesus, while he was on earth, suffered unjustly; we may also face unjust suffering and death (The Lutheran Study Bible, 2008). But, "Vengeance is mine...", as the saying goes. The thing is, we must remember that it was God who said it. Contrary to exacting vengeance upon those who sin against us, we are called to repent of our sin and be forgiven by the grace of God, through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves and, by the working of the Holy Spirit within us, turn away from sin and the works of the flesh, and produce the fruit of the Spirit:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-25).
Engelbrecht, R. E. (Ed.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
Kretzmann, P. E. (1921). Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament (Vol. 1). St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.