Leviticus 19:13-18 | Matthew 5:38-48
Last week – or maybe it was the week before – I mentioned that there was this pattern of speech that Jesus used in the sermon on the mount, and which was a good indication of the way that the author portrays him as taking part in the cut and thrust of theological and ethical debate of his day:
“You have heard that it was said…. but I say to you…”
We read two examples today, and each of them gives an insight into the way that the law and the prophets operated, and the way that Jesus joined in that conversation, and gave his own reading, his own understanding of what they meant.
“You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” For once, this is a direct quotation from the Mosaic law, from Exodus 21: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe”.
It’s not an idea that is unique in the ancient world to the Jewish law, either. A similar injunction is found in the code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian code of law dating from a similar time: “If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one breaks a man’s bone, they shall break his bone.”.
It’s normally understood as having been a limitation on revenge: that in the absence of such a law, the natural desire for revenge would lead to spiralling cycle of violence; and that a legally sanctioned, proportionate response, allowed the matter to be closed; may even allow for normal relationships to be resumed. It is not so much “an eye for an eye” as “no more an eye for an eye – then the matter is behind us”.
The problem, of course, with “take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, is, as Tevye, in “The fiddler on the roof” said “then the whole world would be blind and toothless”.
And it’s not as if Jesus was the first one to recognise this problem. The Midrash, the Rabbinic commentary on the Old Testament, shows Rabbis working with this text, taking the principle of limitation, but morphing it into a form that made more sense in their context. And so “an eye for an eye” became, in Pharisaic Judaism, “reasonable financial compensation for injury sustained” – a concept that we would still find in law today.
The point is, of course, that when Jesus was speaking, his hearers already had a far more complex understanding of those words than a simple literal reading. For most of his hearers, Jesus was not speaking against a naïve, self-destructive application of the letter of the law. And that’s really important for us to get, because it’s too easy for us to dismissively echo Tevye, reject literal one-for-one revenge, and think that we have heard Jesus’ words.
But Jesus goes way beyond that.
He doesn’t say “don’t insist on physical revenge, be prepared to take compensation instead”.
He also doesn’t say “if someone does something against you, just let it go, pretend it didn’t happen”. Actually, that’s probably the worst option. To allow a wrong to go unnoticed, unchecked, is to allow it to flourish. Notice this – it’s important – Jesus does not say “if someone would take your coat, let them, if someone forces you to go with them one mile, go with them”.
What he says is way more imaginative and creative than that. It doesn’t insist on revenge, but at the same time it doesn’t pretend that the wrong has not taken place. Instead, it invites the victim to confront those who have wronged them in a totally different way: by offering more.
Now lots has been written about the way that Jesus’ specific suggestions were cleverly designed to discomfort those who did you wrong. That someone could strike you on the right cheek with their back of their hand, but to strike your left cheek would require them to slap with the open palm – said by some to have been considered a shameful thing to do (although there is little contemporary evidence to support that idea). How a Roman soldier could legally require a subject to carry a load one mile, but no further, and could be in trouble with their commanding officer if they did (again, not a concept with much independent support as far as I am aware).
Or how giving your cloak as well as your coat would create public embarrassment for the one who sued you – for the law required that a cloak taken for debt had to be returned before sunset each day, so that its original owner had something to keep them warm at night.
These details may be true, or there may be subtleties lost on us through the cultural distance. But the intent of Jesus’ tactic seems clear: that by going beyond the injustice forced upon you, you confront those who would take advantage with what they have done, what they are doing, force them to come face to face with the consequences of their actions.
Notice, too, the scope of the examples that Jesus gives. If someone strikes you – personal conflict. If someone would sue you – legal dispute. If someone forces you to go with them one mile – the abuse of the occupied people by the occupying nation. Examples taken from our relationship with one another, with the domestic system of law, and with the representatives of the colonising power. But in each case, reduced to the simplicity of two people interacting with one another.
While I believe that we often make the mistake of reducing Jesus’ words to personal spiritual guidance, and miss the social and political implications in them, here he really is getting personal.
Which leads, naturally enough, into his next “but I say” – ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’
Now “love your neighbour” is surely found in the law – we heard in in our reading from Leviticus – but the second half – hate your enemy – is not to be found anywhere in the law of Moses. The Old Testament could really take it either way – sometimes blessed to be a blessing; other times led to genocide. Our reading from Leviticus, at least by implication, leaves hating your enemy open as an option: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin”.
And here, Jesus finally moves to the heart of his theme, the heart of the teaching in the sermon on the mount. The point, he says, the point of the law, of your faith, of life, is not obeying the rules; it is being like God.
This is why this section of teaching can begin with the call for righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees – righteousness that goes beyond obedience to the law, which is what the scribes and Pharisees were all about – and end with the ludicrous, impossible demand “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect”.
For the call to be like God is Jesus’ rationale for loving your enemies, for going the extra mile, for turning the other cheek, his justification for the whole ethical framework he lays out. For the sun rises on evil and good alike; the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. There, seen in creation, is what God is like. There, seen in the natural world around, is the grace of God.
To love those who love you, to greet those who are close to you, that is to be human. To do that, is to do nothing more than everyone (or at least, almost everyone) else does. How is that salt? How is that light? How is that making the grace of God known?
The law, in a sense, in its full depth, describes what it is to be truly human: and that’s hard enough. In our short Old Testament reading today we have commands to honest dealings, care for those with disabilities, justice, equality of treatment, and care for the welfare of your community. The call of the law, to be rightly human is not an easy one, and it alone would make an enormous difference to our world. There’s a description of Oscar Schindler – you probably remember the movie, Schindler’s list, telling the story of how Schindler, a German businessman, saved around 1200 Jews from the holocaust by fraudulently employing them and declaring them to be essential workers. There’s a quote in which it was said “Schindler was not a saint. He was just a human being, at a time when being human was rare.”
Being human is hard – and often it feels to me as if we in the Church (and I very much include me, in my preaching) speak of the Christian faith as a call to that, to our humanity.
But the call of Jesus on his followers goes beyond that – includes it (for he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets) – but goes beyond it. We are not just called to be as good as everyone else, to be good citizens, good neighbours – we are called to all that, but that’s just the start.
The call of Christian discipleship is to be salt and light; to stand out even amongst our fellow citizens as reflecting the character of God. It starts here; the core command of discipleship: love your enemy. Do more than can be demanded, more than can be expected, more even than can be imagined, for friend and foe alike.
And if that’s not enough, there are still two chapters of the sermon in the mount to go…