The Lex Talionis

19 June 2006: Monday of the 11th Week in Ordinary Time
Matthew 5, 38-42: An Eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth

The Lex Talionis is an ancient law that could be found in the Old Testament such as Exodus 21, 23-25, Leviticus 24, 19-20 and Deuteronomy 19, 21. It also appears in the Code of Hammurabai (2285-2242 BC), the earliest known code of laws. Today, the Lex Talionis is often associated with savagery. However, if one looks at its context, the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” is a step away from a rather more savage tribal law: if a person from a tribe injured another person from another tribe, then all of the members of the tribe of the injured are to take vengeance on all of the offender’s family or tribe. Thus, the Lex Talionis already limits vengeance only to the individuals involved in the feud. But our faith moves further away from vengeance towards mercy. The Old Testament for example embraces acts of mercy. Leviticus 19, 8 says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people” and Proverbs 25, 21 says, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”

However, Jesus removed all of the Lex Talionis because vengeance has no place in the Christian faith. For Jesus, the Law of Mercy or the Law of Love is above all. The Gospel gives us an example. He said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek also.” William Barclay explains that there is more to this example than meets the eye. He said that if we would like to slap the right cheek of another with our right hand, there is no way to do that but using the back of our hand. In Jewish law, it is twice more insulting to use the back of our hands than the flat of our hands. And therefore, Jesus is saying that even if we receive insults, we should not retaliate. He himself have been insulted: He was accused of being with tax collectors and prostitutes; He was called a blasphemous person; He was not respected in his own town. But He himself did not retaliated or sought vengeance. In his last hours, He would pray for forgiveness for those who have offended, tortured and killed him.

Today, the Law of love and mercy and non-retaliation as Jesus asks us to practice belongs to one of the hardest laws to do. Even when one does what is right, we still receive insults and intrigues from all sides. We cannot please everybody as they say. However, Jesus takes us away from the tendency of resignation. He encourages us also to take an active responsibility for those who hurt us. In another Gospel passage, we hear that if someone offends us, then we ought to settle it with the person concerned first, then if unsuccessful, to seek the counsel of church elders. Thus, the object is not anymore vengeance, but reformation of our enemies --- and of ourselves.

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