The words "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" were given three times in the books of Moses. It was a directive from God for magistrates and judges.
There were three reasons for the rule. 1) It would protect the weak against the strong. We know that the weak are often vulnerable. God did not want it that way so a "fair play" rule was given. 2) It would serve as a warning to people who were evil and violent. Any close reading of the Bible will show how abhorrent violence is to God. So he set down a warning. 3) It would prevent judges from inflicting punishments that were too severe in cases where one person maimed another. God acknowledges that judges are human and tempted. The rule would help level the playing field and prevent emotions from taking over. God wants justice to be done. As such it was a good law, but as happens so often, what God gives us is taken and turned, often warped and abused.
By Jesus' time, the Jewish leaders had perverted that law. Rather than a directive for legal authorities, they had made it personal. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" meant that any person had the right to avenge wrong against him privately. If you are hurt, you can go and hurt your neighbor back. This was the opposite of what God wanted. By doing so they were fostering a sense of malice and condoning deeds of violence. So it is time for Jesus to speak out.
While the words of the Old Testament were given to government officials, Jesus is here talking to individuals, not authorities. "Do not resist an evil person" is the word of Jesus that we are never to take the law into our own hands, that we are not to take private vengeance. That is the government's responsibility. The authorities are to take action, not individuals. I Peter 2:13-14 (NIV): "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right."
Then Jesus takes things further. Not only are we not to take personal vengeance, we are to be kind, we are to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.
One of the things that makes Christians different is the instructions of Jesus about our enemies. One of the reasons I believe the Christian faith is true, why I believe it could not be a made-up religion as some people think, is that it tells us to do what is contrary to our human nature. When evil is done to us, the human instinct is to respond with evil. We want to attack. We want to get back. We want revenge. That is the natural response. The result is that evil triumphs. They do evil to us, we do evil things to them. But Jesus tells us to act exactly contrary to our own nature, to respond to evil with good.
Now this does not mean that wrongs are to be ignored. This does not mean that people guilty of crimes are to be let go. That would destabilize society, and what God wants to happen would fail. God established governments to uphold justice.
Just prior to the flood, God had such a problem. Society had broken down. There was no punishment for evil. Gen 6:11-13 (NIV): "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, 'I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.'"
Centuries later, with nations established to uphold justice, Jesus tells us to love our neighbors and love our enemies. And the love that Jesus talks about is further defined by Paul in Romans 12:17-21 (NIV): "Do not repay anyone evil for evil.... If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
A powerful example of this principle is what happened in Poland near the end of Communism. The country was falling apart. Many people were rebelling. Martial law solved no problems. Power was slipping from the hands of the ruling group; the economy was a shambles; society's resistance was growing, as was the prestige of the opposition. In 1983 Lech Walesa received the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1984 the Communist government was holding on to power in the midst of the Solidarity movement.
Father Jerzy Popieluszko, was a young popular Catholic priest who served a church in a suburb of Warsaw, Poland. The message he preached was a truly Christian message. It had two fundamental parts, 1)defend the truth, and 2)overcome evil with good. People responded and overflowed his church. Thousands flocked to his church to hear him preach. Ninety percent of the population of Poland was Catholic, and the response to Father Popieluszko's message of the Christian faith was amazing. But the popularity of anyone except the Communistic government was a threat. The secret police followed him everywhere. He began to receive threats. It did not look good for him.
On October 19, 1984, after celebrating Mass and preaching, he just disappeared. It was later revealed that he was abducted by the Polish secret police. Eleven days later, as 50,000 people came to his church for Mass and to listen to a tape of his last sermon, they were told that his body had been found in the icy Vistula River badly mutilated by torture.
The secret police braced for an uprising, but on the day of Father Popieluszko's funeral, the huge and peaceful crowd that walked past the secret police headquarters carried banners and shouted the words that were written. "We forgive." "We forgive." Father Popieluszko had taught them well.
Only Christians, men and women who are touched by and understand the present reality of the Cross, the sacrifice of Jesus himself as he died for us, can possibly overcome evil with good.
The people walking by the secret police headquarters did not like the evil-doers. They were not intent that their evil continue. This was not a flippant "it's O. K." It was simply obedience to God's call.
Jesus did not say hug your enemy. He simply said love him or her. If there is a need in his life, help, give, pray for those who despitefully use you, pray for those who persecute you, overcome evil with good.
God calls us to some things that are easy. That, in a way is what we did last week. We prayed for the families of those who died, the injured and their families, police and rescue workers' families, for safety as they continue to work, for the families of the military men and women who were killed and injured, for the safety of military men and women as they enter harm's way, the President, congress and world leaders, the children, and our world and its people.
It is easy for thank God for heroes, for people who help, to ask God to bless the families who have lost loved ones.
God also calls us to some hard things. God calls us to do some painful, unnatural things. "Take up your cross and follow me" was said long before Jesus was crucified. In a sense, take up the shame and disregard that many people will put on you because you are a Christian, and keep on following. Keep on being faithful in the face of madness and the evil. Love your enemies. Pray for your persecutors. It is hard because it is so different.
What kind of idiot loves his enemies? If he is your enemy, get him. If he is your enemy kill him. If he is your enemy, stop him from having what he needs. And Jesus comes along and says if your enemy has a need, help him. What kind of fool prays for those who despitefully use him? What kind of fool forgives those who kill and maim? What kind of fool responds to evil with good? Jesus, that's who has done it. "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us," (Romans 5:8b NIV).
One of the reasons we are to pray for our enemies is that, that is who we were before we made a commitment to Jesus. For us to pray that God would forgive people who sin, is to pray that they become believers. There is only one way to the Father, and that is through Jesus. What are we doing when we forgive? What we are doing when we love our enemies? What we are doing when we attempt to overcome evil with good? We are trusting God. It is his world. It is he who is almighty. It is he who will win. This is his world. It is he who works through governments to bring justice and restrain evil.
One of the great saints to come out of the Second World War was Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch lady who, with her family, saved many Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. They were strong Christians and believed they should save the Jews, the descendents of Jesus' people. After months of helping people escape, she and her family were betrayed. They were all taken into the concentration camps. She was separated from her parents who were killed. Because she and her sister were young they were kept alive for slave labor.
In the labor camp she watched her sister get weaker and finally on a horrible day she watched her sister die at the hands of a sadistic Nazi guard. She languished for months. Finally through an administrative mistake she was released from the Ravens Brook camp. She became a free person once again. She started life all over again. Having experienced the work of Jesus Christ in the camps she was asked to speak and became a well-known author and speaker.
I was in the audience on an Easter Sunday morning when she told the story of her forgiving. This is what I remember her saying. She had gone to Germany and was speaking at a large gathering. It was a good meeting. Afterwards many people came to greet her and thank her for her talk. As she looked up at one of the last people in line, she recognized the camp guard who had killed her sister. His face would never be forgotten. She said, "All the horror came back. The terror and evil was beginning to overwhelm me. The hate I had felt toward those evil murderers was sweeping me away. All I could do was stop and pray, 'God, I need your help.'" As he approached her, she said, "a calm that could only be from heaven came over me. And I heard the words come from my mouth, 'I forgive you.'" The man was totally broken. And they hugged. For Corrie the circle of closure was finally complete. She was free and at peace.
What kind of fool forgives her enemies? Those who know that God has forgiven them. Those who understand God's love. Those who ask God for help. For in the end, we are unable to truly become like God on our own. But with God's help we can be at peace with God, at peace with ourselves, and while our world is still filled with violence and hate, with God's help we can be makers of peace.