“An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.” –Mohandas K. Gandhi
This is one of those one-line quips that has stuck with me over the years. I think Jesus would high five Gandhi after hearing this. He might even say, “I wish I’d thought of that!”
In fact, he did say something quite like it in his Sermon on the Mount:
“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”
I admit that I roll my eyes sometimes when I hear people getting excited about prisoners being executed for their crimes. Quite often, they are quick to cite Exodus 21:24, the original biblical source for the phrase “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
It almost seems to me like they haven’t read Jesus’ own teaching on that very subject in Matthew 5:38, where he quite specifically and deliberately overturns what was previously written in the Bible.
This is one of those moments when we (if we’re going to call ourselves Christians) cannot simply worship Christ as our Savior unless we also follow him as our Lord.
As God’s people, we are called to be “holy”, which is to say: “different from the rest of the world.” And how does the rest of the world operate? Is there very much “turning of the cheek” going on when it comes to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? How about Bloods and Crips? Republicans and Democrats? Ku Klux Klan and Black Panthers? Not so much.
I think our brother Gandhi spoke the truth when he said, “An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.”
We sinners have a pretty warped sense of justice when we limit its definition to punishment and revenge. Each side says, “Well, they started it!” meaning that “we” are always justified in our acts of violence against “them” because we are simply righting a wrong through vengeance: “An eye for an eye.”
So we set up these infinitely repeating cycles of violence where it’s “Us vs. Them” forever. Bloods vs. Crips, Israelis vs. Palestinians, Hatfields vs. McCoys. Where does it end? It doesn’t.
Whether it’s a feud between neighbors or nations, we’re just going to sit around, poking each other’s eyes out for eternity unless we can tap into some deeper vein of wisdom and come up with a better definition of justice.
I think you won’t be surprised to hear (from a preacher in church on Sunday morning) that our Lord Jesus offers us exactly what we need in terms of this deeper wisdom, this better definition of justice. I believe that he offers us the good news: “the truth that will set us free” from the endless cycles of violence and vengeance.
Jesus’ teaching this morning comes to us once again from Matthew’s gospel. It comes right on the heels of the passage we read last week, the one about “winning each other” and resolving conflict in a way that is consistent with what we believe as Christians.
Today’s passage is all about forgiveness. More specifically, it’s a cautionary tale about what is at stake when we don’t forgive and choose to continue those cycles of violence for another generation.
It begins with a question to Jesus from Peter:
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Peter “tips his hand” and accidentally “shows us his cards” with this question. He reveals that he accepts the notion of forgiveness as a temporary measure for those minor offenders who “aren’t really all that bad” but his core assumption remains the same: that revenge is only way to achieve real justice.
Peter thinks mercy is weak, but he’s wrong.
It’s a common misconception: people mistake kindness for weakness. They equate violence with power, but they’re wrong.
In his usual style, Jesus answers Peter’s question and makes his point by telling a story.
Jesus tells Peter about a hypothetical employee who owed his boss an impossible amount of money: “Ten thousand talents,” to be exact. Now, I read in a commentary this week that a “talent” was a unit of measurement worth about six thousand denarii. So let’s do a little math:
A denarius is a day’s wage for a working person. Let’s be generous and go with the minimum wage that many people are currently fighting for in Michigan: $10 an hour.
$10 an hour times an 8 hour workday is $80. That’s a denarius in today’s terms.
A talent is six thousand denarii, which equals $480,000.
And remember that this employee owed his boss ten thousand talents, which equals a grand total of $4.8 billion, in today’s terms. That’s how much this person owed. This is no small debt.
When the boss simply forgives this loan, we’re talking federal bailout money.
On the other hand, this employee, who was forgiven so much, has a coworker who owes 100 denarii. Using the system we’ve just laid out, that would be about $8,000.
It’s a lot of money for a working person, certainly more than one could ever hope to pay, but it’s almost nothing compared to $4.8 billion.
But this first employee, still flying high from being bailed out by the government, serves an order of collection against the coworker who owed so little. The car is repossessed, the house is foreclosed on. This family is left destitute and the system calls it “justice.”
But Jesus sees this sham for what it is. He speaks through the boss in the parable, asking: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
Kindness is not weakness. Forgiveness is not free. It is given freely, but it asks everything of us.
When God forgives us our sins, it comes with the one and only price tag that we too must forgive those who sin against us. The only way to keep God’s forgiveness is to pass it on.
We Christians are called to make forgiveness the foundational principle of a new society, a new economy, and a new justice system.
When relationships are broken by sin, the only way to repair the damage is to let the cycle of violence stop with us. We have to refuse the rite of revenge and refrain from throwing the next stone of accusation at our neighbor. If a new world is going to be possible, then someone has to give up their right to having the last word.
According to the Christian gospel, that is exactly what God has done for us in Christ.
When our relationship with God was broken by our sin, did God simply stay up in heaven and reign down fire and brimstone on the world? No.
According to John’s gospel, God “took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood (see Peterson, The Message).” God dwelled among us in the person of Jesus Christ.
In Jesus, God experienced firsthand all the pain and torture that life has to offer. When the preachers and seminary professors saw the light of Jesus’ divinity, they called it demonic. Jesus’ own mother thought he was crazy. His followers abandoned him, his friends denied him, his apostles betrayed him. Ultimately, when the powers-that-be of this world could not stand to look at Jesus any longer, they brought down the full weight of their twisted “justice” system upon his head, back, hands, feet, and side. In the person of Christ and the body of Jesus, God absorbed the full force of humanity’s sin and refused to have the last word, except to say this:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Jesus knew (and embodied this truth in his life and death) that in order to initiate a new world, which he called the kingdom of heaven on earth, he would have to absorb all the sinful violence and hatred without returning it in kind. To the rest of the world, this would look like failure, weakness, and death.
St. Paul, in his most famous commentary on these events (found in his letter to the Philippians), says that Christ Jesus,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
But death on a cross was not the end of the story.
We read in the gospels that, on the morning of the third day after these events took place, a few women made their way to pay their respects at Jesus’ tomb. But when they got there, they found something they didn’t expect to see:
The stone had been rolled away from the entrance, the soldiers had passed out from fright, and an angel stood in the doorway, picking his teeth and asked them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here.”
“He is risen.”
Today is the day that everything changes. Death itself has begun to work backwards. The dead come alive. The blind see. The deaf hear. The mute sing. The lame dance. The weak are strong. The foolish are wise. The first are now last and last are now first. The whole world is being turned upside down… or is it right side up?
In these events, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the foundation for a new society has been laid. Herein we find a new definition of justice that goes deeper than “an eye for an eye.”
Mercy, and not revenge, has the power to restore relationships broken by sin.
This failed revolutionary, who died in failure and disgrace with forgiveness on his lips, is now hailed as the most influential person in human history. His ridiculous gospel, which looked so weak to the rest of the world, outlived the Roman Empire that tried to suppress it with all its military might. That same gospel has now reached the shores of every continent on this planet and continues to spread as people like you and I choose to forgive the small debts that are owed to us because God in Christ has forgiven the huge debt that we owed to him.
Jesus says to us and to Peter, “Don’t judge by what your eyes see: forgiveness is not weakness. Mercy has the power to save the world from self-destruction by halting cycles of violence in their tracks.”
Mercy has the power to create a new world.
Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.