38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”
Before we hear what Jesus is going to say about revenge, it is important to recognize that the Old Testament doesn’t teach revenge. It teaches a form of communal justice that was intended to stop the spiral of revenge. The responsibility for enforcing “an eye for an eye” is taken away from the injured party (and his or her kin group) and given to the community. They are to act to balance the equation when harm has been inflicted. In a social context without a police force and jails, revenge is the normal method of policing: you hurt us; we hurt you. And in a world where the strong get away with injuring the weak (of which there are many stories, not least Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites) Israel was called to a different pattern of justice – one that does not favor the rich or powerful. Instead of individual retribution, God declares that “Vengeance (holding others accountable) is mine.” Where justice needed to be enforced, where the scales needed to be set right, God entrusted the exercise of that accountability to the community as a whole.
So before we yield to the common prejudice of a barbaric Old Testament, we should recognize that where effective policing is absent in our own communities, we typically find people taking the law into their own hands and gangs operating on the principle of intimidation and revenge. However tough some of the Old Testament laws may first appear to us, they are in fact preferable to gang warfare and extortion. And it is worth noting that even our society, with a more or less effective legal/policing system, still controls behavior with the threat of revenge in the form of a lawsuit – and our lawsuits include punitive damages! There is no room among ‘moderns’ for an attitude of superiority.
Human beings find ways to hurt back. By nature, we want to even the score. Even children on the playground know that cheating leads to cheating, and excessive roughness to ever increasing violence. Our problem is that our sense of ‘fairness’ always tips slightly towards ourselves. We all want the last licks, so we take the phrase, “an eye for an eye” out of context and use it to justify our acts of revenge that often start a cycle of escalating conflict. When Jesus takes up the law of revenge, he returns it to its original core – reconciling the community. If I refuse to start down the path of revenge, I leave open the possibility of reconciliation. Jesus is not suggesting that we (as a community) not resist evil, only that we (as individuals) turn back from the path of Cain and Abel and not create enemies.