Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Heart Free of Vengeance

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. (Matthew 5:38-42)
The Law of Moses allowed, in cases of injury or loss, for a penalty to be applied in proportion to the injury or loss (see Exodus 21:23-25). For example, a man who lost an eye because of the unjust action of another had a right to receive amends or compensation for the loss of that eye, but not in excess of that eye. Or, a man who similarly lost a tooth had a right to be compensated for the loss of that tooth, but not as if he had lost a mouthful of teeth. This principle, known as lex talionis (the “law of retaliation”), is the basis for the modern tort system, in which a person may sue to be compensated for wrongful loss or damage.

That is the outward working of the law, but here Jesus is going beyond what is required to address the inward attitude of the heart. His comments must be understood in this context. For example, when He tells us not to resist an evil person, He is not saying that we should never defend ourselves or our families against harm, and He is certainly not suggesting that a community or state should ever accept evil. Nor is He teaching that we should not oppose sin, moral evil or the devil. Rather, the “evil person” is the one who has wrongfully injured us — we are not to take it upon ourselves to exact vengeance.

“Turn to him the other [cheek] also,” does not mean that we should not seek to get ourselves out of abusive situations, or that we must endlessly put up with insult. Rather, we should not be easily provoked, but patient in endurance, slow to anger. In context, it means that we should not be quick to take the offender to court.

“If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.” Don’t be quick to sue someone else. But what if someone wants to sue you? Seek a better solution. Ligation often brings our anger and bitterness in people. It is better to settle with your opponent, even at a loss, rather than lose your joy, peace of mind, and the perspective of love.

Notice that there is a subtle shift here. The Law allows for retaliation; Jesus teaches that we should be more ready to give beyond what is required than to extract all that is allowed. "Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.” As Matthew Henry commented about this passage, “The law of retaliation must be made consistent with the law of love.” Paul catches the spirit of this well:
Do not repay evil for evil. (Romans 12:17)

Do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath [i.e., let God take care of it]; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19)

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)
More will be accomplished by love than by litigation, and by a generous spirit than by a heart full of vengeance.

The kingdom of heaven on earth requires a generous heart that is free of vengeance.



The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth

The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth
Keys to the Kingdom of God
in the Gospel of Matthew

by Jeff Doles

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Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.