Jesus was often called “rabbi”—which means “teacher”. A rabbi in the time of Jesus not only taught what the Hebrew Scriptures said, but they had begun to employ a teaching called “midrash”—which not only talked about the passage of Scripture, but also interpreted it for their time. As contemporary Hebrew scholar Wilda Gafney states it, “They reimagine . . . readings while crafting new ones to stand alongside—not replace—former readings. Midrash also asks questions of the text; sometimes it provides answers, sometimes it leaves the reader to answer the questions.” Sounds a whole lot like how Jesus taught, and in particular in the Sermon on the Mount.
And maybe never moreso than in these passages. Jesus (as was discussed last week) uses the “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you” structure to grapple with some of what has been “law” for the Jews since the time of Moses, and he begins with the “eye for an eye” piece which we so often use to justify retaliation. After all, the Bible says, in Leviticus 24:17-20, “Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. 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”.
Seems pretty clear; after all, we are given more than one example here, which seems to indicate it is not just for isolated, specific situations, but pretty much across the board. Not so fast, says Jesus, the rabbi, doing a “midrash” (Matthew 5:38-41): “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 cheek, 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.”
That’s a far cry from retaliation with the same thing that you had done to you. And it’s a far cry from that kind of retaliation being exactly what you ought to do, since it is perfectly justified, perfectly appropriate, and completely sanctioned by God. It is a new way of understanding human interaction—so, as an aside, we really can’t get away with saying “The Bible says an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—OK, it does say that, but Jesus says this, which is pretty much completely the opposite.
So if this is “midrash”—and these things Jesus as “rabbi” says “stand alongside” the other ones, we are indeed left with questions. Is this a new way of living that Jesus advocates? As is it reinforced by the way that he himself lived it out?
Two quotes to consider with these questions.
The first is from Mohandes Gandhi, whose non-violent revolution was significantly responsible for India gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1947 (and was part of the inspiration for Martin Luther King, Jr’s leadership of the Civil Rights movement). Gandhi said “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” To retaliate violence for violence is ultimately destructive.
The other quite is to characterize why we find it so hard to live like Jesus did, and taught us to live—and why we usually say it won’t work. It is from G. K. Chesterton, who said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting—it has been found difficult and left untried.” Yep.
GOSPEL Matthew 5:38-48
38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.