So have you ever had this sort of fight with a sibling? You are playing around and you’re having a good time and all of a sudden, you push or punch your sibling just a little too hard. As they start to cry, you begin to bargain with them. “You can hit me back just as hard – just please don’t tell mom,” or “you can have my dessert for a week if you just stop crying.” Even for children, there seems to be an innate sense of some sort of justice in the world. In verse 38, Jesus is quoting the Old Testament law. Exodus 21:24-25 says “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, wound for wound, burn for burn, bruise for bruise.” And Leviticus 24:19-20: “Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.”2
Sounds a little bit brutal, doesn’t it?
Now before we get too indignant, it’s important to realize that the purpose of these Old Testament laws is to “uphold the right of injured parties to compensation or retribution”3 and to “limit the extent of retaliation to punishment appropriate to the crime committed.”4 We as humans, left to our own concepts of justice, so quickly fall into revenge that outweighs the original crime committed as so many interpersonal conflicts and wars testify to. While not the final say on the subject, these Old Testament laws help to prevent revenge from becoming a burning forest fire, burning out of control and destroying everything in its path.
But now Jesus is calling us to a better way of fulfillment of the law. We are now called not to merely stay within the given bounds of retribution, but we are to respond to violence by choosing the fruit of the spirit – peace (I’m following Kurt Willems’ lead here). And when we choose this fruit of the spirit, we do away with the endless cycle of revenge. We are called to confront evil, not by playing evil’s game, but by stopping it in its tracks. Jesus illustrates what this might look like for us in three vignettes.