How do we reconcile the Old Testament command for vengeance (eye for an eye) with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek and love our enemies?
Our hatred of the “other” is nothing new. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Samaritans and the Jews had been at each other’s throats for literally hundreds of years. At the time when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), the concept of a Samaritan coming to the rescue of a Jew would have been considered just as incongruous as if, say, a Focus on the Family follower marched in the New York City LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) Pride Parade today.
But as the parable made clear, the Samaritan was considered the Jewish man’s “neighbor.” By implication, that means the definition of “neighbor” has to be expanded to include all of God’s children, including those of different social classes, races, creeds and political affiliations. When Jesus commanded His followers to “go and do likewise” by following the example of the Good Samaritan, he challenged the early church to look beyond its comfort zone. His disciples were required to obey the Greatest Commandment by showing His love and kindness to all people, because everyone was their “neighbor.”
The early Christian church cut across the various hierarchical lines that divided people. It did not seek to dominate the political establishment or maintain the status quo; rather its goal was to spread the universal love of Christ. In doing that, it transformed the world.
I had just finished running a workshop for Greenpeace, The Wilderness Society and an anti-nuclear organization on the history and power of nonviolent direct action where I had explored and trained people in the transformative nonviolence of Gandhi, MLK and to the surprise of many gathered, Jesus. Afterwards a well-respected activist approached me away from others and asked with tears in their eyes, “Why was this Jesus not found in my experience of church?”
This question goes to the heart of the Gospel. To the heart of mission. To the heart of discipleship. Why is it that people can’t find the hope of the world in our churches? I think it’s directly connected to the lack of schooling in letting God’s love through us by “loving our enemies.” To be merciful as The Triune God is merciful. Fierce Calvary-shaped love is how God has saved us and its how we are to witness to our salvation. Grace is both how God has saved us and the pattern of kingdom living the Holy Spirit empowers us for.
“Eye for an eye” is not about vengeance but the limitation of retaliation. In Christ, violence is not only restrained but transformed. On the cross God does not overcome evil with evil but with good (Rom. 12:21). There is nothing passive about Jesus turning the other cheek in the face of injustice (John 18:23). To turn the other cheek is to practice the provocative peace that embodies the healing justice of the Kingdom that exposing injustice with the presence of Love (Col.2:15).
We don’t need to reconcile vengeance or violence with loving our enemies. Instead we need to be open to the Holy Spirit’s empowerment to witness to God reconciling the world to Godself through the nonviolent Messiah, Jesus.
Rebecca Bowman Woods:
In Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero shares the story of a 1995 Colorado murder trial. During deliberations, one juror pulled out his Bible and quoted Leviticus 24, the “eye for an eye” passage that concludes with “He that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.” After the juror instructed his fellow jurors to go home and prayerfully consider this passage, they voted unanimously for the death penalty.
The state Supreme Court ordered a new trial, ruling that jurors were not allowed to consult the Bible. Some Christians, led by Colorado-based Focus on the Family, protested the higher court’s ruling. Perhaps rightly so — can a court really prevent people of faith from including scripture in their decision-making?
But the real injustice, in Prothero’s opinion, was that the jurors failed to consider the rest of the Bible, particularly Jesus’ views on retaliation in Matthew 5:38-42.
“There are very few passages from the Hebrew Bible that are explicitly refuted in the New Testament, but Leviticus 24:20-21 (echoed in Exodus 21:23-25 and Deuteronomy 19:21) is one of them,” writes Prothero, a professor of religious studies at Boston University and a staunch advocate of religious literacy.
Christians should rarely fall back on the ‘New Testament supersedes the Old Testament’ argument. In Matthew 5, Jesus warns that he has not “come to abolish the law or the prophets” but to fulfill it. He teaches an ethic that “embraces and extends” the law in several instances, and refutes it in a few.
Amy Greenbaum, a friend who is in the process of becoming an ordained Reformed Jewish rabbi, says the ‘eye for an eye’ text in Leviticus 24 would not have been taken literally, even in ancient times.
I started seeking God on my own when I was a little girl, apart from my family who were not Christians. I can’t explain it, really; I was always drawn to Jesus but couldn’t quite make sense of the Old Testament and a lot of the crazy things that were in there–whole communities being wiped out, God’s vengeance being poured out left and right. I tried to skip over those parts and somehow erase them from my mind and just focus on Jesus because that was a lot more comforting.
Later, as I began to mature in my faith, I realized I needed to wrestle with this disparity. I admit, I still do. I rest on the new order that Jesus created through the incarnation, turning the old ways upside down. I think the contrast is important; the radical difference between vengeance in the Old and New Testament makes God’s point. Jesus changes everything, teaching what the Kingdom now means.
The Sermon on the Mount clearly sets the stage for this new way that completely demolishes the idea of “an eye for an eye.” I don’t think I have to pick apart all the reasons why the Old Testament contains certain stories or examples that are utterly confusing and seemingly contrary to God’s heart for people. I try to rest on the reality that through the gospels, all that changed. The commands shifted, the law got summed up, and the Kingdom principles Jesus taught were going to be much harder to apply than the old laws by a long shot.