Continuing his commentary on kingdom righteousness, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.'”
This quote from Exodus 21:24 is a part of what was called the “law of retaliation”. It was given so judges could mete out punishments befitting wrongdoers’ crimes. It was meant to restore balance to the covenant community offset by someone’s sin and to prevent further corrupting chaos from the sin of vigilantism. While actual evidence of eye-gouging and teeth-pulling as punishment remains ambiguous, the exacting language did frame an exacting attitude for how punishments were handed down by judges.
By Jesus’ time, however, the exacting language had been somewhat privatized by individuals who applied the principle of the language to their everyday interactions in the community. This may have manifested with a “fair is fair” demeanor. If someone insultingly slapped them, it was deemed fair to slap them back or press charges. Or if someone were suing them, they were at least entitled to retain shelter or protective clothing from the elements. And if a Roman soldier conscripted them to carry their luggage, they’d comply for that one single required mile but not an inch more! Ultimately “eye for eye” gave way to “I’ll treat you the way you treat me”.
The problem with the exactingness of “eye for eye” is that once the injuries and penalties are past and the dust has settled, the world hasn’t changed; the tit-for-tat code keeps the status quo exactly the same. For kingdom righteousness to take root in our earthly realm, redemptive reality must transcend status quo. So Jesus continues “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person…”
To resist, in this retaliatory context, is to respond in kind; the response could be physical, legal, or temporary ascent given begrudgingly. Normally our defense of such responses are done with the rationalization that we are actively standing up to evil, a generalized badness that impersonally exists somewhere out there for us to abstractly oppose. But in saying not to resist an evil person, Jesus attaches humanity to the abstract conceptualization of evil. Whenever we treat people like ideas or their representations, we dehumanize them; and in our attempt to stamp out those ideas, we may likely end up stamping out people. Evil isn’t perpetrated by faceless monsters, but by human beings who are in need of the redemptive reality Jesus is establishing through his Kingdom of Heaven. So for the sake of their redemption, Jesus instructs his followers not to respond in kind, and then subsequently projects a kingdom kind of response: “but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”
There is a word which characterizes the mindset Jesus is setting in us here: magnanimous. It’s the ability or willingness to see through the offense, tension, and resentment to the greater good and move yourself and others through it and to it. While “eye for eye” preoccupies our attention with the back and forth dynamic that stymies us with status quo, Jesus’ magnanimity opens that dynamic up for redemptive reality to come in and reorient our priorities away from retaliation and toward kingdom righteousness.
So for the sake of sowing redemptive reality into those who would insult us and the faith, Christ-followers magnify God’s kingdom way by enduring the blows and hostility instead of responding with our own. For the sake of displaying redemptive reality to those who would sue or take from us, Christ-followers demonstrate a selfless standard of living that is rooted in God’s provision rather than our possession. For the sake of esteeming redemptive reality in the minds of dissenters and users, Christ-followers go the distance to depict how God’s kingdom way goes above and beyond the status quo’s way of mere balance. For the sake of conveying redemptive reality’s tangibility, Christ-followers exude a generosity that translates to good news for those in need of it.
A common criticism of these responses is they are passive, appeasing, and enable further wrongdoing. In a broad, generalized sense that is a possibility. But consider, life is not lived in broad generalizations, but in specific actuality. Just as Jesus moved beyond the generalized concept of evil to instead focus on specific persons, our responses must be to the specific people we encounter in that specific place at that specific time. Responses rooted in actuality instead of anxiety over big picture “what ifs” are far more likely to cultivate relationships ripe for redemptive reality. Considering the amount of peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, self-control, and thoughtfulness this magnanimous response requires, these specific responses are hardly passive; on the contrary, they are a completely active response. Redemptive reality does not need to be effected quickly or aggressively in order to be cultivated actively.
Two men who would actually know, both of whom led movements that met with tragic setbacks, costs, and sacrifices, and yet went onto historic national and cultural success, were Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Both men in their own time conveyed the thought that “an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind”. We see in this the distinction that retaliation, or the perceived execution of justice, is not the same thing as righteousness. The enforcement of law is the maintaining of balance, but not the prevalence of goodness. Goodness flourishes when persons rooted in good news emanate Jesus’ redemptive reality by embodying his kingdom righteousness.
In this context of retaliation, kingdom righteousness means cultivating a Christ-centered character where, instead of giving as good as we get, we give better than we get. Jesus himself would show us how this is actually done; he did so through tested patience, complying with people’s requests, and by going to the cross in order to bring those who put him there, including ourselves, into a redemption that could pervade all reality.