February 19, 2017
By: Dcn. Garry Salguero
The “lextalionis” or the law of retaliation is an attempt to enact fair justice among the people of ancient Israel. Wherever harm is committed--whether intentional (Leviticus 24:20) or not (Exodus 21:24)--the judges of ancient Israel were expected to authorize the law of retaliation (i.e., "eye for an eye"). It is not to be practiced only in cases when an evil person causes injury. Rather it is a law that expresses a commitment to justice (Deuteronomy 19:21); ensuring that the penalty does not arbitrarily make the punishment more severe than the crime. But Jesus actually admonishes followers not to oppose the evildoer violently, not, in the words of the NRSV's translation, "Do not resist an evildoer", which implies no opposition to oppose. Rather, Jesus has an alternative strategy for dealing with evil. His objective is to overcome evil with good. His goal was to overcome humiliation by shaming those in power.
Jesus advocates the type of follower who is willing to give even more than asked to those in need: "Give to everyone who begs from you" (5:42). For the poor, the loss of one's "cloak" in addition to one's "coat" (5:40) would have meant a cold night’s sleep since the cloak was normally the evening blanket as well. If he has the poor in mind in a court of law, it may have been an act of shame to hand over one's cloak and coat as a symbol of one's debt. The nakedness of the one in debt may have brought shame on all parties involved in the land-based, debt-ridden system of that time.
Loving, praying for, and forgiving one's enemy is an extension of Jesus' broader teaching about the perfection of God (5:48). Jesus provides an image to capture the meaning of this quality of God, one that God's followers should emulate. Later in Matthew's story, Jesus confronts a rich man who has faithfully followed the commandments of his religious tradition (cf. 19:16-22). This man still recognizes that something is missing (19:20). Jesus' response is shocking: "Sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor" (19:21). Like most of us, this man can't carry out that challenge. Only in Matthew's account is such an action classified as what it means to be "perfect". This is the type of maturity Jesus desires from his followers. Jesus' teaching stems from a conviction that since God is perfect, so should the followers of God be. Just as God provides good things (i.e., "rain") for the just and the unjust, so must God's followers treat others (whether "good" or "evil") with consistent love (5:45). Care for the other--despite the other's actions--sums up the language of perfection, maturity, and fulfillment in life.