A Life for a Life
The death penalty for murder is well established for many people by appealing to the Law of Moses:
“Whoever strikes someone so that he dies must surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:12 NET)
“‘If a man beats any person to death, he must be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:17 NET)
“Whoever kills any person, the murderer must be put to death by the testimony of witnesses; but one witness cannot testify against any person to cause him to be put to death. Moreover, you must not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death; he must surely be put to death.” (Numbers 35:30-31 NET)
Even before the Law was given to Moses, the Word of God declared: “Whoever sheds human blood, by other humans must his blood be shed; for in God’s image God has made humankind.” (Genesis 9:6 NET)
But an Eye for an Eye
Now injury doesn’t always result in death, but the culture of the time throughout the Ancient Near East allowed for vengeance, payment of a perceived debt for injustice. Thing is, vengeance could lead to murder. So God implemented a regulatory principle into the Law of Moses to keep His people from wantonly killing each over any little jab to the jaw:
“Anyone who injures another person must be dealt with according to the injury inflicted— a fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Whatever anyone does to injure another person must be paid back in kind.”
(Leviticus 24:19-20 NLT)
“But if there is further injury, the punishment must match the injury: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.” (Exodus 21:23-25 NLT)
The purpose of this principle, then, was for a punishment to fit the crime, for a fair debt to be owed for an injustice. In the modern age, this principle has been misinterpreted as if revenge were being encouraged by God. But this idea comes from a lack of historical knowledge that these laws were a radical reform for controlling vengeance. And it had a good run.
However, by the first century, as God’s Kingdom was arriving on Earth, the King of this new Kingdom expected us to live by an even more reformed principle. In a famous sermon, Jesus said:
“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” (Matthew 5:38-42 NLT)
What does this mean? On the surface, Jesus is telling us not to retaliate. But some of these examples aren’t even violent, such as someone asking to borrow. I think he’s taking the old “punishment fits the crime” paradigm, in which you are owed something for an injustice, and neutering it. I think we’re being told we’re not owed anything at all anymore. But why not?
Pay What You Owe Me!
There is a story Jesus tells in Matthew 18. He brings it up after the Apostle Peter asks what should be the maximum number of times a fellow believer can be forgiven.
The story goes that there was a king who decided to get back money his servants owed him. One particular servant owed him the equivalent of millions of dollars, an impossible debt to pay back. So the king threatened to sell him and the man’s family to recoup the money. The servant begged him for mercy, saying he’d pay it all back somehow. Then the king had pity on the guy and went above and beyond: he forgave the entire debt. This is analogous to God forgiving our entire debt of sins.
Now here things get interesting: the servant himself had a guy who owed him money, in this case a few grand. Compared to the millions of dollars, a few grand should be nothing, right? The analogy is that compared to the enormous debt of sin we owed God, our own debts to each other, even if sizable, are easily forgivable.
But that servant wouldn’t have it. “Pay what you owe me!” And he harassed the man, threw him in debtor’s prison, and had none of the mercy the king had. The analogy here strikes at Peter’s question: how many times should we forgive? Well, at least as many as God has forgiven us.
Now the king in the story heard about what the servant did and was furious:
“Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.” (Matthew 18:32-34 NLT)
Look at that final sentence again, because right after this Jesus clarifies the analogy:
“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35 NLT)
So we come back to the question, the same one as Peter’s, how many times should we forgive? The answer is there is no limit. Because if we ever do refuse to forgive, like that butt clown servant, the story tells us plainly what will happen to us.
How much should we forgive, then? That is, what should we forgive? Whom should we forgive? We can try to pick apart the story to find exceptions here and there, but the fact is that a simple reading of the story says this: forgive your Christian brothers and sisters everything always. Coupled with Jesus’ saying that “eye for an eye” is no longer valid, we arrive at this: Take no vengeance toward a brother or sister for something you think is owed to you. This was a radical departure from the culture of the time—and the culture of today.