The “eye for an eye” teaching that our Lord refers to in today’s gospel (Mt. 5:38-48) was actually an attempt to restrict violence in a time when revenge was indiscriminate and excessive.
In the revenge culture of the time not only was it the perpetrator of a violent act who became a possible target for reprisal but any member of the same family, clan, ethnic group or even someone “thought” to be responsible or connected. The culture of revenge was excessive. An “eye for an eye” therefore was an attempt to limit the continuous cycle of revenge and violence. With this understanding it would almost be better to read the injunction as “one eye for one eye and no more”.
For our Lord though it was not enough. His desire is not just to limit the cycles and structures of violence but to actually heal the human heart from which all evil desires spring. Evil and violence can never overcome evil and violence, even when co-opted for a good. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had an astute awareness of this truth. In his writings and speeches we certainly find the call to end the massive injustices that the African-American community faced but we also find Dr. King reflecting on how the path of non-violence was also meant as a means to help heal those white brothers and sisters whose hearts were hardened by racism and prejudice.
God says to Moses, Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Lv. 19:1-2, 17-18)
In contrast to the law of co-opted violence, our Lord calls us to the law of abundant generosity – to be holy as God is holy, who makes the sun to rise on the bad as well as the good. God is love; he is abundant in his mercy. Our Lord is not naïve; he knows the full weight of evil and violence. On the cross, Jesus took on the full weight of sin and its structures.
In the law of abundant generosity, Jesus is calling us to a pragmatism of generosity. Evil and violence cannot heal the human heart (even when co-opted in an attempt for the good). Evil and violence cannot end the cycles of revenge and violence … only love can. When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other one. When someone wants your tunic, give your cloak as well. When someone presses you into service for one mile, go for two. Our Lord proposes to us the pragmatism of generosity. It is through this pragmatism that is found true healing for hearts that are wounded and hardened.
There is a story told of a painter who arrived one day in a small town and set himself up in the town square offering portrait paintings. For a few days he sat in the square with no one purchasing a portrait. On the fourth day the artist approached the town drunk (whom he had noticed earlier) and said, “Listen, come and let me paint your portrait. I need to keep my skills up and at the end you will have a free portrait.” The man agreed. He sat in the portrait chair and straightened himself up as best he could. The painter looked at him silently, reflected for a few moments, smiled and began to paint. The painting continued for a few days but the painter would never allow the man to view the painting while it was in progress. Finally, the portrait was completed. The painter handed the portrait to the man and the man’s mouth fell open. Pictured in the painting was not a town drunk but an accomplished man – there was a gleam in his eyes, he held a steady gaze. Instead of scruffy clothes and a disheveled appearance, the man was clean shaven and wore a nice suit. “What is this?” demanded the man, “You have not painted me.” “You are right,” replied the painter calmly, “I have not painted you as you now are but as the man whom you might become.”
The pragmatism of generosity sees and responds to the other person in terms of who he or she is meant to be. Jesus calls us to live this law of generosity – to be holy as God is holy.