Read: Matthew 5:38-42
The phrase, and “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” most often portrays the idea of vengeance or retribution in most peoples mind. This phrase appeared in the ancient Code of Hammurabi which predates the Old Testament Law which was engraved on a stele. The stele contains this phrase too then outlines a number of scaled punishment that were supposed to be fitting for the crime committed. The Old Testament too in a number of conditions and repayments for various crimes that attempts to capture the essence of the phrase such as repayment for an ox that falls into a pit or a life for a life whenever a life was taken (Exodus 21:12-36, Leviticus 24:17-21) . At the same time though, the Law also describes how accusations and cases were to be settled. Innocence was presumed, so it required the testimony of witnesses in order for one to be declared guilty and a sentence carried out (Deuteronomy 19:15-21).
What happened though was that the people of Jesus’ day had forgotten that the Law was not to be interpreted and applied by one individual upon another. It was the role and responsibility of the government to be the arbiter of justice and Paul affirms this view in the New Testament context (Romans 13:1-7). Interestingly, Paul had just finished giving a discourse in Romans 12:9-21 similar to what Jesus was saying in the Sermon on the Mount about not repaying evil with evil and overcoming evil with good. Jesus was correcting the twisted version of how the people had come to understand law that was to be applied by government as a justification for personal retaliation.
In the same breath, Jesus gives one of his most famous admonitions to “turn the other cheek”. The implication of turning the other cheek was not telling people to lay down and be trampled, rather to endure the persecution and in effect “fight back” with good as Paul says in Romans 12:21 rather than seek to retaliate. This sort of fight shows strength of character that overcomes the evil while retaliation shows weakness of character on the part of the one who really wants revenge.
Christians today still live under the same principles that ancient cultures lived under. Punishment for crimes ought to reflect to the best degree possible the severity of the the crime. But at the same time, the agency of justice ought to be government and innocence should be presumed rather than guilt. And likewise, it is not the place of the Christian to seek retribution, even when one is wronged. Rather one should over come evil with good and in doing so one can win over another through his or her strength of character.
Lord, help me to overcome evil with good!