Scripture Readings: Micah 4:1-5 | Psalm 46 | Romans 12:15-21 | Matthew 5:38-48
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21).
I’m sure it’s not news to anyone today that our world is not at peace. Sure, there are pockets here and there that have not known the horrors of war for a long time now… but even if we’ve managed to resist outright fighting, it seems more and more that our human family is set on tearing ourselves apart… turning on each other, and promoting deep divisions, some of which stretch back for generations.
We might think of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine; brutally seeking to displace and seize their neighbour’s homeland. We might think of the Israeli Army’s invasion of neighbouring Gaza, attempting to end the very real threat posed by Hamas to their own existence, but destroying the lives of so many Palestinian civilians in the process. Sadly, there are so many examples of lives and countries torn apart by war… we could go on for quite some time.
You all know I’m no expert on international affairs, and whatever the way forward may be to end these and other conflicts, I’m sure it’s not simple, or straightforward.
But that’s true of lots of things in life: The way forward for our world is not to be found without effort, and sacrifice… laying something precious down for the sake of gaining something greater.
Each year at Remembrance Day, we honour the memories of those who put their own lives in danger so others might be spared. We read the names of those from our Parish family who served in the military on behalf of our Country in war, some of whom never returned. And most of whom returned with deep wounds in body, mind, and spirit. We take time to remember the horrible costs of the conflicts that keep tearing our world apart… and we pray that God would bring the day when all wars come to an end, and His peace will reign forever.
And as God’s people today, called to place our trust in Jesus Christ, and follow His ways, we remember that the way forward for us too requires sacrifice… laying something down we might hold dear in order that something much greater can grow in our world… which is what our reading from Matthew’s Gospel today is all about.
Matthew 5:38, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” I’m sure many of us have heard something like this saying before, even if we’re not all that familiar with the Bible. This saying occurs several times in the Bible, specifically in the Law of God given to Israel to guide them in their life together as God’s covenant people.
For instance, in Leviticus 24:17-20 we can read that: “Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” (Leviticus 24:17-20).
These days, this saying can sometimes be offered as support for the principle of retaliation: that is, if someone hurts you, then they should be hurt in return. We can’t leave a bad deed unpunished… we have to get back at them. It seems like a simple, straightforward way forward: this path of retribution. And so in this light, we might hear some people with reservations say things like: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.”
But as usual, there’s much more going on in this commandment than a divine demand to seek revenge. It’s actually a law intended to set limits on retribution and violence… even for the sake of justice.
One way to wrap our heads around how “an eye for an eye” is intended to restrict violence and revenge might be to use the example of some modern legal practices around sentencing. I think many of us hear “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” as a mandatory minimum sentence. That is, if someone knocks out your tooth, they must have their tooth knocked out as well, and so on.
But in the context of the ancient Israelites, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” was about setting a clear maximum sentence… setting clear guidelines on how not to go overboard in punishing wrongdoers… and breaking the cycles of violent revenge that tear whole communities apart.
In practice, this means that in settling conflicts the guiding principle was not to be simply “getting them back for what they did”… but seeking a way forward that publicly acknowledges the injustice and harm that was done… but within limits, and without simply giving in to the destructive desire for vengeance.
Eye for eye, and no more. A tooth for a single tooth… not two. If someone breaks your arm, you can’t break both of theirs in return. A life for a life… and let it end there.
That was the heart of this guideline that God gave to Israel many centuries ago to help them live together in ways that sought to deal with injustice, but without going too far.
But in St. Matthew’s Gospel, we find Jesus Christ, God’s Son, calling His followers to go way beyond the guidelines provided in the Laws of Moses. Jesus, the One who completely embodies the self-giving love of the Living God, teaches His disciples to say no to vengeance, hatred, and prejudice… to forego all rights to take the path of retribution… and to instead embrace the path of forgiveness… a path He Himself has walked before us.
Jesus says to God’s people: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
You don’t need me to point out how radically different the way of Jesus is from the ways of our world. But before we find fault in what He says, lets seek to understand what He’s really getting at.
For starters, He’s not advocating that Christians ignore evil and injustice, but that we radically change how we respond to it… in this case, by being set free from the need to seek retribution at all… a freedom found by entrusting ourselves, as well as the fate of those who do us harm to the justice and life-changing mercy of God. Laying down our natural impulse to “get back at those who hurt us”, in order that something much greater can grow in our world: the gracious peace and love of God.
Matthew 5:43-48, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
These are more than just words, they’re the path that Jesus Himself embraced: laying down His own life at the cross to win our freedom… offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice to bring God’s peace and love to our broken and backwards world… and rising again from the dead to show us that the path to life is not found by getting revenge, but by giving forgiveness… and opening up the way forward for the healing of the wounded hearts that keep us apart.
An eye for an eye sets limits on our destructive desires for revenge. Forgiveness seeks to do away with it for good. It is by no means simple or straightforward, I know… but Christ Jesus the Crucified and Risen Lord shows us that forgiveness is the path to life… for us, and for our world.
As followers of Jesus Christ today, in a world torn apart by bitter divisions and wounds that go back for generations, we have a truly special role to play in bringing God’s peace to and life to light: like Jesus, we are to lay down our claims for revenge… and to practice forgiveness… not simply for our own sake, but to show our world that it is possible to stop tearing each other apart, and to break the cycles of violence and retribution by sharing the grace and love that God gives to us all in Jesus Christ.
So may we courageously seek to do all we can to pursue peace, here at home, and around our world. May we refuse to get caught up in the prejudice and hatred that fuels so much destruction. May we remember that Christ Jesus laid down His life out of love for every single human being, be they our loved ones, our neighbours, or even our enemies… and may that same love be at work in us, and guide us forward together. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School