Vol. 6, No. 23
Daughters of Mary Instruction
14 February 2017
Lynn D. Clapper
Imagine yourself living in Galilee in the year 30 A.D. You are out and about taking care of errands, but in the distance you see a crowd of people clustered at the foot of one of the hills on the outskirts of town. You walk that way as you head home, and as you draw near you see that the crowd is listening to someone sitting up on the hillside. Wanting to know why everyone is paying such rapt attention, you whisper a question to someone on the edge of the crowd. His answer surprises you. The bystander explains that they are listening to this Jesus from Nazareth who has been walking the countryside healing and preaching, and his words today are quite surprising. He has criticized the scribes and Pharisees for their teachings, and it almost sounds like, well, it sounds like he is describing a new way to interpret the Law of Moses! As you hear this, you look around at the others in the crowd. Some are merely curious, you can tell. But many are looking anxious and troubled at the words this Jesus is speaking. You decide to stay and listen.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil’ (Matthew 5:38-39), Jesus tells the crowd. He has your attention, now. No resistance? The Pharisees have taught an entire code of complicated rules for every type of retribution, and damages, sometimes. Everyone is entitled to get back at someone, aren’t they, when they are insulted, or injured? No resistance? Even Moses told us that we are due some sort of recompense when a crime is committed against us. What does this man mean when he says to offer no resistance?
In his account of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew tells us that Jesus spoke to his listeners about the very essence of law that governs all people everywhere…the laws that define retribution against personal insult and injury. Laws governing vengeance and retribution have their origins in the very ancient world when vengeance against the perpetrator of a crime was determined by the victim, or his family, not by law or a court of judges or elders. As cultures and societies became more sophisticated, the ancient rulers began to write codes of law designed to establish some sort of order in their lands, and to solidify their bases of power in their expanding empires. The laws were often quite brutal, and it was not unheard of for the slightest insult to be avenged by the taking of a limb, or even murder. At least five hundred years before Moses led the Hebrew people out of Egypt, the Babylonian king, Hammurabi, wrote a code of law that made an effort to curb this type of brutality. Known as lex talionis, or the law of retaliation, an ‘eye for an eye’ referred to a code that was intended to set a limit on punishment that was equal to the value and nature of the crime. You could only take a limb if your limb had been taken. You could only take a life if a life had been taken. Less retribution was acceptable, but greater vengeance was not.
The Law of Moses also administered justice for personal injury according to this principle of reciprocity. But, Yahweh was determined that Israel would not be like the other nations, and while the letter of the law was similar to the laws of the kingdoms and the peoples that surrounded them, the spirit of the Mosaic Law was quite different. Under the Code of Hammurabi, lex talionis was reserved for situations between persons of equal social standing; there was no equality of justice under the law. In Israel, a people whose allegiance was to their God, and not a king, Yahweh was specific. If I am your God, and you are my people, my law applies to each of you.
But, if the letter of the Law of Moses wanted to limit acts of retribution among God’s chosen people, the spirit of the law wanted to obviate the need for any retribution at all. The law God delivered through Moses on Mt. Sinai was a complete moral, civil, and religious instruction that was designed to shape the lives of a people chosen by a God whose first commandment was that they love him alone, and whose second was that they demonstrate their love for him by showing that same love to each other. While lex talionis limited personal ‘payback,’ the original spirit of the law was not to endorse retaliation for injury or insult among the people of Israel, but to prevent such acts. To cut off the hand of another in the course of a fight or a more serious crime was one thing; to cut off your own hand as recompense or punishment was entirely another matter.
There is question whether the Hebrew people, or any of the peoples of the ancient world, ever consistently applied the laws of lex talionis that allowed an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. By the time the Hebrew people assembled on the plains of Moab to hear Moses’ final instruction regarding the laws that would guide them in their promised land, their numbers were so numerous that a council of judges from each of the tribes was appointed to help administer the law and to hear complaints between feuding parties. After centuries of conquest, exile, and conquest, again, and the pharisaic determination to interpret the Law in ways that made sense in their own times, it was not long before the spirit of the Law was forgotten, and justice among the Hebrew people became more and more indistinct from the systems of justice that were found among the other peoples of the world. By Jesus’ day the scribes and the Pharisees oversaw an entitled and litigious judicial culture that demanded recompense for insult or injury. Israel was like the other nations.
On the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus of Nazareth reminds his listeners of what was said to the Hebrew people in the days of Moses. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth were the letter of the Law of Moses designed to set Yahweh’s chosen people apart from the idolatrous, somewhat barbaric, cultures of the ancient world. But, in his sermon on the mount, before a crowd of people who were Jewish, and some who were not, Jesus, himself, described a poverty of spirit for anyone who was called to follow him. For a people who worshipped God alone, who were called to be the salt of the earth and his light to the world, vengeance under the Law belonged only to him. Recognizing no enemy, and insisting that they pray for those who persecute them, Jesus told his listeners that they must turn the other cheek, offer the coats off their backs, go the extra mile, and give to the one who asks.
You and I were among those in the crowd that day listening to Jesus describe the new spirit that would guide the people he chose to follow him. But, this new spirit cannot be found written in the letter of the Law. As Fran will tell us in her beautiful commentary, this new spirit must be written on our hearts. It is not an easy teaching. Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of Mary, Son of God. He has chosen us to be his people, and he has called us to follow him.