Matthew 5:38-42 contains Jesus’ famous words on the lex talionis, the law of retribution. Here are the words and then I have one reflection:
Matt. 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Perhaps the most neglected element in interpreting this text is what is said in the text Jesus is quoting, Deuteronomy 19:21.
Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
The judicial posture in the Torah for the lex talionis was this: “Show no pity.” To be sure, Israelites soon converted the equal retribution dimension of this law into financial fines but the stringent theme in all of the tradition was that justice was required, and the requirement was “show no pity” even if the punishment was converted into economic value. What a person has done wrong needs to be undone by doing that same wrong back to them.
But Jesus’ posture is the opposite and it cannot be seen as a form of exaggeration. His revolutionary preface, in effect, to the lex talionis was “Show mercy.” While he doesn’t say this explicitly when he quotes the Old Testament, his own words that form the antithesis are clearly a variant of “show mercy.” His words again are “Do not resist an evil person.”
Instead of prosecution and instead of exacting retribution to redress the imbalance of justice, Jesus forms another way: show mercy and unravel the system of retribution that pervades our society.