There are at least three times in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) when there appears a law about the limit of retributive punishment: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, fracture for fracture…etc. (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21). We have a similar way of dolling out punishment for crime inasmuch as certain crimes tends to carry certain kinds of sentences—there are precedents to those sentences and there are some limits to those sentences.
Stealing a loaf of bread doesn’t warrant the electric chair.
As far as I can tell, those “tooth for tooth” statements in the Hebrew Scriptures limit the victim of some crime (tooth-related?) from up and killing their assaulter. Maybe by the time Jesus rolled around the laws had become somewhat rigid, complicated, and time-consuming. If someone knocked out one of your teeth, you can knock out one of theirs, but what do you do if they have no teeth? Do they get off scot-free?
Exactly equalized punishment gets complicated quickly, so Jesus comes along in his Sermon on the Mount and says, “You have heard about this tooth for tooth nonsense? Well I’m gonna go ahead and say that if someone hits you—with their left hand—you go ahead and turn the other cheek. Give to anyone who begs. Lend to anyone who wants to borrow. Love your friends and your enemies. Go the extra mile because you want to be better than the tax collectors and Gentiles and scribes and Pharisees.
Let’s be very honest here…as soon as you read these passages you start thinking that Jesus is making up new laws—just another rigid structure that points us to an ideal that we can never achieve. Right? “Give to everyone who begs from you?” What about my friend who begs and begs just to get what he wants when what he really needs is to get help and find a job?
Turn the other cheek? What if I am in an abusive relationship?
If you find yourself getting lost in the idea that Jesus came to give us a new set of rules to live by—a checklist for salvation—then stop. Stop it. Stop. Just stop.
First off, his “new set of rules” are not specific and are up for an enormous amount of interpretation:
- “Give to everyone who begs from you…”
How much? Do I give what they ask for? Do I give them money? Is the time of day enough? Can I shoot them a smile?
- “Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Again, do I have to let them borrow what they want to borrow?
- “…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…”
Are we just talking face cheeks here, or should there be even more butt-spanking in football? What if someone strikes my left cheek? What if they hit my nose or my forehead?
I offer these examples to illustrate exactly what Jesus does not intend for us to do. He isn’t clarifying these laws in order to give us a slightly more specific and difficult legal system; he is pointing us beyond our compulsive need to make a checklist for salvation. Jesus may even be mocking our compulsion because he had to have let out a smirk when he said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
But Jesus isn’t just getting rid of the law by making it absurd—he’s beckoning us to go deeper.
Deeper than checklists.
Deeper than moralizing.
Jesus beckons us to go deeper within ourselves to find the source of our behavior—are generosity and gratitude at the heart of our daily lives, or are ambition and a desire for control? What else motivates us?
What motivates you to give to a charitable cause? If I am perfectly honest, there is a great mixture of motivations when I give to a charitable cause—a mixture of wanting to be generous, to give back that with which I have been blessed, but also to boost my reputation as a generous person and feel as if I’ve done enough good to consider myself a “good person.”
We don’t have to lie to ourselves or others about these motivations—in fact in those truthful revelations we can often find out more about ourselves and each other than we otherwise would have known. This kind of conversation deepens our relationships as we find ourselves able to live more transparently with one another.
The same is true about our relationship with God. We find out more about the nature and depth of that relationship only as we examine our conscience, our behavior, and our motivations. That relationship is to what Jesus beckons us—not to an individually and privately fulfilled salvation checklist, but to an ever-deepening relationship with the Living God.
So throw away that checklist mentality, but keep the checklist close by…it might provide some guidance as we discern all of the other stuff.
The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.
This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Sometimes using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.