Revenge Redefined


You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth . . .’ (Matt 5: 38)

Where does this statement appear in the Torah and what is the context? On the three occasions where this phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” appears in the Old Testament – Ex. 21: 24; Lev. 24:20 and Deut. 19:21 – they all relate to civil situations, cases that were judged by a duly constituted civil authority, and never to an individual to exact vengeance upon another individual. However, the Pharisees had taken what was a divine principle for the courts and turned it into a licence for personal revenge.

How did Jesus address this issue in the spirit of Torah?

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matt. 5: 39-42)

Wait a minute! Is Jesus advocating that we become doormats and allow unscrupulous people to abuse us? Is this the spirit of Torah? Does Jesus want His disciples to be spineless pawns in the hands of wicked people?

First of all, we must distinguish between what is civil authority’s right to protect the citizens of a country from criminals, and personal offences which we do not have the right to judge. Jesus is dealing purely with personal matters here. In the kingdom of God, the right thing to do is to give up our right to avenge personal offences because God is the perfect judge.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. (Rom. 12: 17a, 19)

Before we are offended by the thought that Jesus permits people to treat us how they like, there is another side to this issue which will bring balance to Jesus’s words. For a third way of responding to injustice, the New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, in his books, Engaging the Powers and The Powers that Be, suggests the following explanation of Jesus’s words:

Jesus specifically stated that, if one is struck on the right cheek, he is to turn the other cheek. There are two ways to strike a person on the right cheek – a backhanded slap with the right hand or a flat-handed slap with the left hand. In the culture of that day, one did not slap another with the left hand because it was used for “unclean” purposes. To receive a left-handed slap was the height of insult. A backhanded blow was the way a superior treated an inferior. Either way, Jesus implied that a superior was beating an inferior.

Jesus came down hard on the Pharisees because they thought they were better than other people. He taught His disciples never to despise other people or think themselves better. His yoke was humility – viewing themselves in their rightful place in God’s world. However, at the same time, He did not allow socially inferior people to be treated with contempt.

A non-violent way to protest such treatment would be to “turn the other cheek”, forcing the assailant either to stop the abuse or to admit that the one he treated as inferior was actually his equal. The only way he could continue beating him was to admit that they were equals.

The following two examples emphasize the same point:

A Roman soldier was permitted to force a civilian to carry his pack for one mile. To prevent abuse, more than one mile was prohibited. Jesus advocated that, rather than to protest or refuse, the soldier be put in a difficult situation by carrying his pack for two. He would be forced to take it from you or face retribution, making him appear like the oppressor.

It was lawful to confiscate a peasant’s tunic for non-payment of debt. His only other garment was his cloak which doubled as a blanket at night. If he gave away his cloak as well, he would be left naked and cold. Jesus said, “Give him your cloak,” which would force his creditor to leave the peasant naked. Nakedness was not a sin but to look at a naked person was regarded as sinful. Hence, the poor person would expect to be treated with dignity and mercy. (from the article, “The True Meaning of Turn the Other Cheek”, by Marcus Borg, retrieved March 2015)

How, then, should we redefine revenge? God’s way is to turn the tables on one’s “enemy” by requiring him to treat one with dignity, and by treating him with kindness instead of perpetuating the wrong. God is the just and final judge. We can safely leave all judgment to Him because He will always see that we get justice. Sometimes the justice we expect is not always the justice we receive because God knows, not only the circumstances but the heart.

Our judgement is one-sided, in our favour and according to our standards. God judges according to His perfect knowledge and His standard, His Word which is an expression of His character. Unfortunately, our judgement will also backfire because Jesus promised that the same measure we use to judge others will be used against us. How would we like to sit under our own judgment and receive the same punishment we want to mete out to our offenders?

Better to forgive and to drop our offenses and allow God to out things right in His time.

Scripture is taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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