Be Holy … or Blind & Toothless
Lex Talionis – the Law of Retaliation. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an arm for an arm, a life for a life. “The earliest human legal systems were almost universally forms of Lex Talionis, a law of equal and direct retribution.” (Richard Hooker, World Cultures, General Glossary. wsu.edu. 1996.) One of the oldest existing legal codes comes to us from Hammurabi, the Amorite king of Mesopotamia, which dates back to ca. 1700 BC. I came upon an online translation of the code and saw how a variety of premeditated, unjust and random human offenses were punishable by exacting a fine or by putting the offender to death … When someone does wrong to me, I am within my right to inflict an equal wrong back, maybe not with my own hand necessarily, but somehow through the legal system.
A member of the Canadian house of parliament in 1914, a Mr. Graham, arguing against the death penalty once said to his colleagues, “If in this present age we were to go back to the old time of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ there would be very few honorable gentlemen in this House who would not, metaphorically speaking, be blind and toothless.” (QuoteInvestigator.com) Several authors agree that this Law of Retaliation was a reasonably effective measure against the human appetite for vengeance. Simply put, most people who have suffered severe humiliation, offense, abuse or harm in any way would more likely choose to visit upon their adversary much, much worse than they themselves had received. And if there was even a remote possibility that the original offender would return with an even more severe response, the victim had just cause to do greater harm than first they suffered, if only to prevent further retaliation. Codifying such a law unequivocally sanctioned this principle of equal and direct retribution, which when enforced by the state, took on the appearance of measured restraint. No longer was vengeance a personal response. It was now a community’s collective response. There would be no emotional baggage attached, just the realization of the law’s intent. But it was still vengeance. Unfortunately, the lust for vengeance would not be so easily satisfied. And throughout human history and culture we have witnessed and continue to witness the sad reality of honor killings, vendettas, and blood feuds.
Law is instituted to establish order in human society. But what is permitted by law is not necessarily favored by God. As Jesus did in last week’s gospel, he again points to the Law of Moses and then calls us to focus beyond what the law requires. In the old covenant, fidelity to the Law of Moses translated into fidelity to God. And the Law was the basic minimum required of Israel in her covenant relationship with God … the basic minimum. What Jesus requires of his followers would be so much more than just the basic minimum. You have heard it said to your ancestors … but I say to you differently! I say to you, be even better still, be the best you are capable of, strive for excellence! Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!
The Law permitted equal and direct retaliation, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. And if taken to its logical conclusion, we would all be blind and toothless indeed. But Jesus goes in another direction altogether. “Offer no resistance to one who is evil, give more than is asked of you, give until it is inconvenient, give until your adversary is stunned to silence.” A tough lesson, but something Christians have struggled with for centuries. This teaching goes against common sense, against our sense of justice, against the very fiber of our Western value system. But it offers something the Law of Moses does not – a de-escalation of hostilities, an end to the vicious cycle of hurt and humiliation, and the healing of our fragmented humanity in the face of righteous anger and murderous rage and never-ending resentment. Okay, not immediately, but it helps us get there with lots of patience. And it will be a slow and painful journey. The countless women and men we venerate as martyrs made that same choice at the price of their freedom, their dignity, their life. Not so easy for us though. Yet this is what sets the authentic Christian apart from all others. This is what perfection after the heart of our heavenly Father looks like. This is the holiness to which we are called.
The Law instructs us to love our neighbor and hate our enemy. What Jesus asks of his followers is beyond insane, contrary to our nature even. “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” The holiness of his disciples is Jesus’ primary objective. But what exactly does holiness involve? It is not the manner of one’s demeanor or affectation. It is not a “look” as though you can capture holiness by wearing a certain attire or adopting a set of facial expressions, speech patterns and gestures. It is not attained by surrounding yourself with religious signs and symbols. Rather, it is something more internal. Holiness is the embodiment of right relationship with God and one’s neighbor. It is the ultimate appreciation of one’s baptismal dignity, that the disciple of Jesus Christ would strive for perfection as only God is capable of. Jesus demands it. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This course of action will make the Christian neither popular nor wealthy. It will make them stick out as unusual and strange. Yet this is the wisdom that Paul points to in his letter to the Corinthians we read earlier, a wisdom that is unknown to the wise of this age. Consequently, our actions are guided by God’s principles instead of our own. What we would consider reasonable and just can sometimes be far from God’s mind. If we would behave as sinners and unbelievers do, if we would treat our neighbor as tax-collectors and pagans do, what right have we to call ourselves disciples of his Son? “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Or be just like everyone else, popular and wealthy, and blind and toothless …