There are many great stories of revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo, Hamlet, and Moby Dick to name but a few. Recent movies like Law Abiding Citizen, Taken, and Hatfields & McCoys provide for anyone who believes ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’. There is even a television series entitled Revenge. It is highly entertaining to read about or to watch the protagonist of the story plot his revenge, with the story building to the climatic confrontation that will finally bring justice. Robert F. Kennedy is attributed with the quote that could have served them all, “Don’t get mad, get even.” However, in most of the stories the anticipated moment of revenge is not as sweet as planned. Sometimes the protagonist is so consumed with his revenge that in the end, it destroys even him.
In our text today Jesus is discussing the Hebrew law of retaliation (Leviticus 24:19-21; Deuteronomy 19:16-21). This law existed for two reasons. First, it provided a framework for justice and retribution. Second, it set limits upon that retribution. That is to say, you could not take more than an “eye for an eye.” A person was usually not required to actually surrender an eye, but to pay what a judge deemed to be the value of an eye. In places where such laws are not in use, people or their families may seek a more vengeful revenge. People who seek revenge often quote the “Eye for an Eye” passages to justify their actions.
In the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” the Jewish villagers of Anatevka are under persecution by Tsar Nicholas II (as were all Jew in Russia under the Tsars). Eventually, they are forced to leave their homes, and one of the villagers suggests that they stay and fight. He says, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” To which Tevye replies, “Very good. That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.” While Tevye does not know the answer, he does know that the answer is not in fighting their enemies.
Those who follow Jesus are given a different way of handling persecution. “Turn the other cheek…, Love your enemies…, pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus says that you should confront evil with the weapons of forgiveness and love. It is hard to remember in the heat of the moment that your enemy is one for whom Christ died. Whether your enemies realize it or not, they too were created in the image of God and are loved by God. Which response has the potential for the strongest impact on your enemy, striking back or forgiveness and love? Retaliation from the heart is much more powerful than retaliation with a fist, which generally only escalates the situation.
This does not mean that nations should not defend themselves when attacked. Jesus was not laying down a national defense policy in his teachings, nor was the Jewish law of retaliation. Jesus is talking about how his followers should respond to the evil they confront in those who persecute them. The example he gave for us is his own persecution when he was arrested, beaten, falsely accused, condemned and unjustly hung upon a cross. When spat upon, he did not spit back, when struck he did not strike back. Legions of angels were at his command, yet he did not lift a finger. Instead he said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” On that Friday, who ultimately carried the day? Which actions had the most profound impact on the lives of others?
May our prayer on this Friday be to follow Jesus in forgiving and in loving our enemies. There is an old Dutch proverb that falls in line with what Jesus is teaching us, “The tree of revenge does not bear fruit.” Conversely, the tree of the cross continues to bear fruit.