The Famous "Lex Talionis"
Text: Matthew 5 : 21 - 48
There were other laws of God that the religious authorities misinterpreted and abused. These had to be addressed and dealt with effectively. One day the disciples would have to teach these great truths too. They must ponder over these truths until they were able to answer whatever queries people may have concerning these laws. Another law of God that was abused was the “lex talionis”. This Latin phrase simply means, “The Law of Retaliation”.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An
eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ ”
This was the lex talionis. This was a good law that provided for the courts to dispense justice to all who have been victimized. The interpretation seems obvious. If a person has been victimized, he may appeal to the courts for justice. The judge must make sure that justice is upheld and the victim fully compensated. If a person has lost “an eye” or “a tooth” he must be compensated accordingly.
However, if a person were to take this law in a wooden literal manner, great abuse could result. The wicked person could apply the law in the worst possible way. William Shakespeare well portrayed Shylock the Jew as one who demanded a pound of flesh from Antonia in his famous play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Shylock’s demand for the literal pound of flesh is the equivalent of the abuse of the lex talionis in the days of Jesus.
In the hands of skilled but corrupt lawyers, this good Mosaic law was greatly abused. Jesus had to teach His disciples how they should understand this law.
YOU CANNOT FIGHT EVIL WITH EVIL
How did Jesus understand the lex talionis? In what other way could this law be understood and applied? Let us ponder this word from Jesus.
“But I tell you not to resist an evil person.”
Jesus first helped the disciples to understand the harsh realities of life. They must comprehend the fact that there was much evil in the world. There were evil people in the world. How should evil be fought? Can one fight evil with evil?
This was a needed word of warning. If one were to abuse the law of God with evil intent, one would be guilty of evil too. Evil cannot be used to fight evil! Evil means would only make the perpetrator guilty of evil too!
TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK
How then should evil be dealt with? Let us ponder over this astonishing teaching of Jesus.
“But whoever slaps you on your right cheek,
turn the other to him also. If anyone wants
to sue you and take away your tunic, let him
have your cloak also. And whoever compels
you to go one mile, go with him two.”
You can imagine how the disciples must have gasped as they heard these words from their Teacher! What did he mean? Did He expect all His followers to actually practise this teaching? Let us ponder what Jesus must have asked His disciples to think through.
1. With reference to the law courts
Retaliation was out of the question! That was obvious!
b) Legal revenge
The law courts were not to be abused to gain personal revenge.
c) Rejection of evil
Evil must never be employed at any time in the upholding of justice!
2. With reference to “personal suffering”
a) Humble tolerance
Suffering may be just a “personal insult”. A slap on the face is often more of an affront to the dignity of the individual rather than deep personal injury.
The word “magnanimous” may well be used to summarise what Jesus meant here. The American Heritage Dictionary well defines this word magnanimous as “courageously noble in heart and mind”.
It takes both courage and nobility to never stoop to the level of an evil person! The person who sues another just to obtain a tunic is just being petty. The true disciple of Jesus must never be petty-minded! He must practise magnanimity! The good and magnanimous disciple of Jesus willingly “gives in” to the evil person who erroneously believes that he has the upper hand if people were to “yield” to his demands.
NOBILITY OF HEART AND MIND INDEED
Jesus capped this teaching by offering true wisdom of the finest nature!
“Give to him who asks you, and from him
who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”
“Give…” rather than “Take” – was the watchword that Jesus gave to His disciples.