Eye for Eye

Torah Portion: Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)
Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:17-48
Commentary by: Matthew Day

In the last parashah we just finished reading about the magnificent Ten Commandments, those ten words that have come to represent the totality and height of morality in our eyes. He speaks these words from Mt. Sinai in a thundering voice such that all the people are afraid. Never before and never since has an entire nation heard the voice of God at once. This was a big event. Which makes what follows seem a little anti-climatic.

Before God gives Moses the tablets of stone (at the end of this week's parashah), we pause for a brief intermission to hear detailed judgments concerning slaves and property--pretty mundane stuff compared to what we just witnessed at the mountain. Most of these laws require some kind of court system, meaning man is intimately involved in how these judgments are carried out. What at first seemed to be a lofty spiritual ideal has seemingly spiraled downward into the day to day muck of what it means to be human living in a broken world.

Yeshua comments on one of these "legalistic" (as in deeply integrated into the forensic world) commandments--the infamous "eye for eye" passage--in His sermon on the mount. "You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But, I say to you , Do not resist the one who is evil" (Matt. 5:38-39). Is Yeshua contradicting the Torah? Not at all. But, he is robbing it of its power. Let me explain.

The passage of Torah we are looking at proscribes a list of legal judgments. If this, then that. The laws assume sin. People will do wrong, therefore, justice must be measured out. Someone will steal an ox--restitution must be made. Someone will seduce a virgin--the disgrace must be remedied. Someone will take a Hebrew slave--limits must be set. The law assumes a broken world and attempts to place fences around those areas that are particularly dangerous and destructive.

But, what if the sin disappeared? What if we never encountered these situations in the first place? Would not the laws be made to have no effect? They would become unnecessary in the sense that the situations in which these apply would never come up, thus there would never be occasion to apply the law. Alas, such a situation exists only in our dreams.

Or does it? Sin indeed reigns throughout the earth, but Yeshua comes preaching a way to deprive it of its power. "Turn the other cheek." "Be reconciled to your brother." "Pray for those who persecute you." Forgive. In so doing, you free your own soul from sin's grasp. Sin loses its power to hurt you. And when sin becomes powerless, it withers away and dies. Yes, we have the legal right to seek vengeance, to take our oppressor to court. But, that path just validates the hurt, validates the sin. Yeshua came to show us a better way. He descends into our mucky world in order to lift us up out of it back to the Kingdom vision that God first started to articulate at the mountain.

The text says "eye for eye," but what about soul for soul? We who have defamed the very Name of God, who have desecrated His dwelling place and the face of His image-bearers, what hope do we have under the law? For we owe Him our very lives to pay for the sin we have committed. God had every right to take us to court, to demand of us payment for the defamation committed against Him. But, instead He chose a different path. He turned the other cheek. He took the scorn, took the injustice, took the sin upon Himself. He blessed and did not curse His enemies saying, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). This is the good news to us. Should we not extend the same to others?