Scripture: “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” Leviticus 24:19-20 ESV
Observation: Having instructed Moses regarding the feasts, the Lord provides details about the lamps and bread used in tabernacle worship. The author then inserts a brief historical narrative (few and far between in Leviticus) about a young man who blasphemes the Lord and consequently faces a ceremonial death by stoning. As part of the storyline, Yahweh provides further instruction regarding justice: the law of retaliation (lex talionis). While this form of justice lacks any notion of mercy and forgiveness, it emphasizes the sanctity of humans made in the image of God (imago Dei) and the importance of restitution.
Takeaway: Christ quotes verse 19 of this law amid his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38) to advance its underlying principle to include godly attributes of mercy and grace: “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:39–42 ESV).
So how are we to understand this seeming contradiction? We must look through the lens of Christ’s sacrificial death that atoned for our sins—not just outward behavior but that of the heart. Indeed, as Jesus also taught in this pinnacle sermon, we face judgment when harboring hate toward others (Matthew 5:21-22). But, thanks be to God, Christ fulfilled lex talionis when he bore our sins in his body. Indeed, “By his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24 ESV).
Still, the consequences of civil and criminal law remain. Nevertheless, our Lord forgives and forgets as long as we confess our sins against him and others and repent (seeking restitution when possible). And there remains one added element of this advancement of the law: For the injured party, we not only refrain from retaliating but respond with mercy and generosity toward our offender. Indeed, our gracious godly responses will reflect the imago Dei in us to a revengeful world that desperately needs a sign of hope.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for extending mercy and grace to us through the sacrifice of your Son, who turned the other cheek and went the extra mile for us. Would you please help us follow your Holy Spirit’s lead in responding to those who have wronged us with godly mercy and generosity that glorifies your Son in us? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling