‘Eye for an Eye’ and the Extra Mile

November 9, 2011

This week’s lesson from the Sermon on the Mount addresses the issue of retaliation. There is a word here for all Presbyterians about responding to life’s hurts in a godly fashion. Particularly in the contentious environment in which some of us are working these days, where hurts are inflicted and wrongs are perpetrated, I predict that Christ may challenge us severely.

38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

An eye for an eye.

Jesus harkens back to the old rule of Israel, found in Exodus 21:24, with elaborations in Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. The Law’s original intent was to prevent the excesses of a blood-feud. “An eye for an eye” was actually a moderating idea: let the punishment fit the crime and do not overdo its warrant. The old command preserved justice, and the new one can do no less, since Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. 

When those folks who have the capacity at Presbytery to hurt us, and rebuke is required when they do (or when we do), then appropriate life-shaping discipline is the goal, but not revenge. In fact, restoration is the ultimate objective, according to the first chapter of the Rule of Discipline.

Do not resist an evil person.

It is not a disciple’s job to mete out his own justice. God will take care of that, it says elsewhere. Jesus’ admonition not to fight back or resist the injustices of another was demonstrated by his own conduct at his trial before crucifixion. [This is an instruction for the individual, the private citizen, not to the state, which is charged with the responsibility of restraining evil on behalf of its citizens.] Whether or not we Presbyterians ever consider another in our tribe to be “evil” is one thing; but short of that, if someone seeks to do me harm or to ridicule my efforts at Presbytery, it is not for me to punish her.

Turn the other cheek.

A slap to the right cheek was an injury to personal honor, like the backhanded slap as a contemptuous insult. Jesus teaches us to stand up to the attacker bravely and calmly, but not to “get even.” I can think of a few “moments” during congregational meetings in times past when I have been slapped in this manner (figuratively speaking); what comes naturally is to fight back or sling an insult in the other direction. But Jesus says no to that option, even as it means remaining vulnerable to hurt. What is required is Christian poise in the face of affront.

If sued, give more than the aggrieved demands.

Consistent with Jesus’ previous teaching on conflict resolution, the command is toward generosity and conciliation, short of a lawsuit. But if another wants the shirt off your back, give him your coat, too. Though it is extremely uncomfortable to pursue the question, we must ask how this teaching applies to the church property issue. On one hand, when a congregation desires to leave the PCUSA with its property, how can the presbytery refuse? On the other hand, what right does a congregation have to make the demand in the first place?

Go the extra mile for the one who seeks to exploit you.

At the very least, Jesus is saying, in one-on-one daily, non-heroic situations, be resolved to put aside your own convenience. This would seem to add weight to the hope that presbyteries would go out of their way to make sure a departing congregation is provisioned and set up for its continuing ministry.

Give to the one who asks to borrow from you.

This command refers to those situations in which one feels taken advantage of. Jesus desires that we overwhelm another person’s possible exploitation by being generous. A perfect example of this comes from Les Misérables where the good Bishop reacts to Jean Valjean’s theft of his sterling silver plates. The Bishop said, “Wait, wait, why did you not take the candlesticks as well?” Augustine notes that the text does not say, “give whatever your are asked,” but “give to whomever asks,” meaning that if persons ask us for something unjust or excessive, we do not have to give that to them, but we do have to give them something and err on the side of generosity. The $64,000 question is whether departing churches are going too far by expecting to retain occupancy of their real property and whether presbyteries are being retaliatory by requiring a congregation to vacate as they leave the PCUSA.

Jesus, as usual, presents us with some disturbing challenges. What are we to do in obedience to Jesus’ teaching, and how are we to live into our Presbyterian commitments? Is there any way in which these two demands are in tension with each other? If so, what are we supposed to do? Stay tuned.

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One Response to “‘Eye for an Eye’ and the Extra Mile”

  1. John E Says:

    Great reflections, Mary. I wish I lived up to the standards better but like all of us I am a work in progress.

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