An eye for an eye

It’s the most interesting thing, I think, when Christians talk about God’s justice. One of the first things people mention is the saying, “an eye for and eye”. This is found in the book of Leviticus.  “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” * Scholars think that originally this rule functioned to place limits on vengeance and retribution. The punishment should not exceed the severity of the crime. So, if you injury my child, I cannot kill your child, or your entire family.

Fair enough.

What I find odd about this is that Christians don’t first talk about Jesus’  revision of this idea.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right check, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. ” (Matthew 5:38-42) #

For Christians an “eye for an eye” is not our model. Our model is what Jesus said,  to love our enemies.

Recently I was discussing Miroslav Volf‘s essay “A Cup of Coffee” (from his book, Against the Tide) with some people  and I asked the question, “What does God’s justice look like?”  That turned out to be a difficult question. The discussion kept turning to the ways we ought to treat each other. What I wanted to know is what God’s justice toward us looks like.

It seems to me that until we are clear (as best we can be) about what God’s justice looks like toward us, we will have difficulty understanding  justice between humans.

What do you think?  Makes for an interesting Holy Week question.

What I suggested to the group was this:

God’s justice looks like the crucified and risen Christ.

God’s justice looks nothing like ours.

We routinely conflate justice with punishment. If your local TV news is anything like my local news, you regularly can see people declaring they want “justice” for their loved one.  What they seem to mean is they want someone punished.  We have a difficult time thinking about justice without also meaning punishment.

Before you object that we can’t let criminals and wrongdoers do what ever they want. Let me just say, I want us to make a distinction between punishment (that has revenge as a part of it) and consequences for actions and the protection of peaceable people.  I don’t mean that thieves or murderers or other criminals should be allowed to practice their crimes without consequence. They need to be stopped from robbing, murdering and so on. Stopping bad behavior and working toward a person’s  restoration  to society is not the same as punishment.

God’s justice has to do with restoration and reconciliation more than punishment. Think about the actions of Jesus. Think about the parables that tell us about the kingdom of heaven. Wrongdoers aren’t punished, they are invited into the kingdom.

This is a very difficult idea for us.  We really want to see the guilty punished. It seems unfair that they might not be punished. It seems wrong somehow that Hitler, or Terry McVeigh or Saddam Hussein might not be punished but rather might be forgiven and restored into relationship with God.

Good Friday and Easter are full of many meanings. Neither are events that can be summed up in one simple idea or phrase. But part of what they mean is this.

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.

All of us, every single one of us.

The best and holiest of us and the worst and most depraved of us.

No one is outside the love of God. No one. Whether we like it or not. Whether we think it is fair or not.

God’s ways are not our ways. God’s justice is not our justice.

Thanks be to God.


*The phrase “eye for eye” is also found in Exodus 21:23-25 “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, would for wound, stripe for stripe.” You can read this in it’s larger context here.

# This is part of the “Sermon on the Mount” found in Matthew chapter 5,6,7 and in Luke 6:17-49.

3 thoughts on “Justice

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through your article. Interestingly, in a few minutes I am going to post my blog of the day, which is on the need some sufferers have for the flashbacks of the post traumatic condition.

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