Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth

Exodus 21:20-27; Matthew 5:38-48

“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind” said Gandhi.

Not quite.  “Two eyes for an eye” might do it.  Or even “an eye for an eye for an eye”.  But “an eye for an eye” was an upper limit of retribution set down in law, explicitly forbidding the escalation of violence.

It comes within the first body of laws after the ten commandments (or “ten words” as they really are):

“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Exodus 21:24-25)

Here’s what’s being established: You have the right to compensation for the losses you have borne through another’s sin.

Elsewhere in the law’s application we see that eyes, burnings, woundings were not literally exacted as payments.  Instead the value of what was inflicted was to be paid as recompense.  So the very next verses in Exodus give a case study of how to respond to the wounding of an eye:

And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.  (Exodus 21:26-27)

The application of this law will not blind the world.  But neither will it save the world.  All it does is establish a foundation of justice.  We see in the law that there are such things as just deserts and punishments that fit a crime.  We should expect retribution for the harm we cause.  The law establishes justice.

We need justice if we’re going to have the true power that saves the world: grace.  Let me explain.

If you take a dislike to my cat, cut it in two with a chainsaw and send me the parts in the mail I could respond in three ways.  I could press charges and see you suffer for your crime.  Hopefully you’d be forced to pay damages equal to the loss of poor Balthasar.  Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, cat for cat.  That’s justice.

But perhaps you come and plead with me for mercy.  You hadn’t had your morning coffee, your broadband was infuriatingly slow that day, you’re under financial pressures, it was a moment of madness, you can’t afford the lawyer’s bills, you’ll make it up to me somehow.

Extraordinarily I might show you leniency – I won’t quite exact the level of punishment you deserve.  But of course that’s only lenient because of the expectation of justice.

Thirdly I could show grace.  I could come to your house, forgive you unreservedly, empathize with your financial woes and offer to help you with your bills.  Now that’s extraordinary!

But it’s how the LORD deals with us:

He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.  (Psalm 103:10)

The LORD’s relationship with us is not and cannot be a tit-for-tat one.  He is always showing us incredible grace, condescending to guilty sinners.

And from the Old Testament itself we understand that “law” and “justice” were never an end-point.  The Law and the prophets were always pointing to grace.

Justice serves grace.  It’s only the justice of the law that makes the offer of grace extraordinary.  Grace is truly gracious (and not simply an arbitrary “soft touch”) because the law has determined that “every transgression and disobedience receives a just recompence of reward” (Hebrews 2:2).

And this explains what is a mystery to many: How can Jesus be so pro-law and pro-grace?  Didn’t Jesus famously say:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:  But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.  (Matthew 5:38-39)

And yet, only a few verses earlier He said:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.  (Matthew 5:17)

Jesus goes beyond “eye for eye” because He’s filling full the law’s intention.  You see the law’s intention was never to simply balance the scales.  No, the point of justice is to serve grace.  It establishes the losses incurred through sin and demands that they be borne.  But here is grace: the LORD (the offended party) comes to bear the cost Himself.

On the cross Jesus turns His cheek to a world that has given Him a cosmic slap in the face.  It is the ultimate show of grace.  But He is not thereby abolishing justice.  He’s upholding it.  His grace is that He bears the losses the law demands.

Interestingly the phrase in Exodus that introduces “eye for eye” is often forgotten: “Life for life” (Exodus 21:23).  And Jesus establishes the true meaning of “life for life.”  He comes to guilty sinners and says “Life for life!”  But not, “yours for mine”, “mine for yours.”

The ultimate God-man dynamic is not legal.  It’s counter-conditional, extraordinary grace.  And as Gandhi himself would discover in the political arena, this is what changes hearts and carries the victory.

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