Friday, March 2, 2012

"An eye for an eye" properly understood, and Christ's command to love one's enemies (Sat, 1st Week of Lent, Matt. 5:43-48)

Are the standards by which Jesus wants us to live too high? Don't the demands he makes on his followers seem too difficult? "I say to you, love your enemies; and pray for those who persecute you?"

Can anyone really live up to the requirements of such a command?

The Law of Moses on retaliation which says,
“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, seems far more reasonable, and yet, is itself often misunderstood.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said: "An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind". It was certainly clever, but it also missed the law's real point and intention.

In reality, the so-called "Lex Talionis" was not meant to encourage revenge. In fact, it was intended to put a limit to the vengeance a person could take on another who had caused him harm.

The Law was the basis for order and justice in ancient Israel. It forbade one seeking vengeance to take more than what was taken from him. If an enemy took one eye from me, I may only take one eye from him, no more than that. Without this Law, revenge would’ve been excessive. With this Law, the possibility of an endless cycle of vengeance was put to an end.

But Christ was not satisfied with Laws that merely put limits to the evil we can do. And so he replaced it with one that would not put a limit to the good that we should do.

And so the Lex Talionis, the law setting limits to revenge was replaced with the Law of Love, which calls us to a higher standard, precisely because it’s very difficult to live up to.

“Love your neighbor”, it says. But notice that after we’ve loved our neighbor, it tells us again, “love your neighbor”. [And in today's gospel, we are enjoined to see that even the enemy is encompassed in the command to love.] "Love your neighbor; love your enemy". And should we reply, "I have already done so", it simply answers us back, "then love some more", repeating the command over and over again.

One can never fully satisfy the Law of Love.
For with this Law, love is made endless, limitless, and ultimately something which one must spend his entire life doing. Love then becomes an endless quest, a life-long endeavor, not vain and hopeless, but a quest whose fulfillment is the quest itself.

There was once a philosopher who said, “the standards of Christianity are either the standards of a madman or the standards of a God who has too much faith and trust in human beings”. The standards by which Christ asks his followers to live are indeed higher, more difficult, and more challenging.

But that’s because he has far too much trust in our ability to achieve the highest and most noble goals and aspirations life sets before us. We are after all, made in the image and likeness of a God who is fullness Himself.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)