A Reflection on Matthew 5:38-42
When Jesus was quoting that part about exacting “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” he was actually quoting Scripture, and the phrase (or something similar) can be found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. People often point to this as saying that God allowed for vendetta, but that isn’t quite right. This phrase, which is NOT to be taken literally, is based on the principle of fair justice. This basically means that the punishment should correspond in kind and degree to the injury.
Let me explain. It is the rare human being who, when hurt, does not desire vengeance. Given the opportunity, he will often inflict greater damage than has been suffered. “You killed one of mine; now I will kill ten of yours.” You see this in the movies all the time. So, to prevent excessive punishment at the hands of an avenging individual (or government) the “eye-for-an-eye” policy ensures that the punishment should fit the crime.
Now, this is justice. But like Gandhi, who was very inspired by Jesus, said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” And that is exactly what is happening to the world. A desire for vengeance is resulting in a vicious unending spiral of pain that never seems to end, because everyone is reacting only in hate. Hurt continues to be inflicted, and old wounds get deeper, while new wounds are constantly being gouged.
How does it end? It will end only if one party says, “Enough. You hurt me if you want; I won’t hurt back. No matter the provocation.” And then, if this person is able to follow through on his decision, they the cycle of unending pain might cease. It isn’t easy, because sometimes the other person just goes on hitting and hitting, often under the belt, and you wanna hit back just to make him stop. And not to react can take everything out of you, because there is a part of you that keeps crying: foul!
I have found myself tested on this, myself, and finally the only way I managed to succeed (kind of!) was to think of Jesus’ Passion, and how he didn’t retaliate. In the Garden of Gethsamene, when Peter raised his sword to defend him, Jesus rebuked him harshly. “Put your sword away, Peter. If I wanted I could have twelve legions of angels to defend me? But this is how it should be. (See John 18:11, Matthew 26:52).
He did that for us. Let us do the same for him.