Transformer: More than meets the eye for an eye

Many consider Leviticus boring, containing as it does so many of the laws of Moses, listed one after another. Yet, it is important to keep in mind how powerful Leviticus is as a text, containing as it does so many of the laws of Moses, listed one after another. The power comes from a serious assessment of the reality of the law contained in Leviticus: it is God’s law. The law of Moses is his only in the sense that God delivered it to him; Moses is not a lawgiver in the same manner that Solon and Draco and Lycurgus were, for these ancient lawgivers drafted the law for Athens and Sparta, while Moses received his law from God. If one accepts the law as divinely revealed, then it matters that we know it, even if we do not always understand it. And it was not always understood, even though it was always followed - with exceptions naturally. I just re-read a wonderful little book by W.D. Davies, Torah in the Messianic Age and/or The Age to Come, which was published in 1952 and contains the Greek and Hebrew, amidst the typescript, written in his own hand. In this book Davies argues that there was no real concrete teaching that when the Messiah came the law of Moses would be brought to an end, though there are occasions in which the midrashic and rabbinic authorities look to transformations or changes in the law with the coming of the Messiah.

Jesus’ reflections on Leviticus and the law of Moses in general in Matthew 5 give us an example of the manner in which Jesus transforms the law of Moses. On a number of occasions the law speaks of "eye for eye, tooth for tooth"(e.g., Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). In Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18 it says,


"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy...You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord."

How does Jesus respond to the law of Moses? He says in Matthew 5:38-48,

"You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Jesus calls not for measured justice, "eye for eye," and his call goes beyond even the forgiveness of the wrongdoer. The disciple is asked not just to forgive the loss of an "eye," but to request the equivalent of "could I have another?" It must be remembered, too, that an "eye for an eye" was itself an improvement on revenge without limits and the passage had already been interpreted not as a physical recompense but as a monetary recompense. Yet, Jesus asks his followers to turn away from natural revenge and recompense - and it is natural to want justice from one who has wronged you - and to resist evil by responding to it with kindness.

Likewise, the call to "love your neighbor" in Leviticus is a profound call, for even a "neighbor," generally seen as a member of one’s tribe or people in the ancient context, is not always easy to love. Yet God’s call in Leviticus is that "you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself." We might forget that Leviticus itself asks for a task hard to fulfill, even with those to whom we are closest and share most in common, because Jesus asks us to extend this love beyond the traditional definition of neighbor. Indeed, although Leviticus, and the Old Testament as a whole, does not ask us to "hate" our enemy, it does not ask love to be extended to them. They are, after all, enemies for a reason. Yet, when we combine neighbor and enemy in Jesus’ teaching, we see that we are to act with love towards all. The law is by no means abrogated in Jesus’ teaching, it is extended beyond its normal limits. Do not take revenge, even when you have a claim, and love everyone, even your enemy.

But how? How can this be? Oh, that’s right: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." So, back to my initial questions: but how? How can this be? Jesus is calling for his followers to be so transformed by their relationship with him that they can move beyond the normal limits of human behavior, to see the humanity of each person as God sees it even in those who harm us. The word for "perfect" here is teleios, which can also be translated as mature, complete or whole. God is teleios. We are not. We are asked to continue along this path, step by step, relationship by relationship, guided by the transforming love of Christ, who is the model of the one who forgives all wrongs and who transforms us so that we might follow the law fulfilled in him and treat everyone according to his love. He is the transformer, the one who meets us beyond "eye for eye."

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

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Juan Lino
8 years ago
Great post John!  Your last paragraph is outstanding - bravo! - and gave me much fruit for reflection.
8 years ago
Another beautiful piece to ponder.   Thank you.

Even toward the end of Jesus' earthly life he inspired the good thief to transform himself, and of course, let us not forget the centurion who stood at the foot of cross watching the whole drama of the crucifixion.  He was so completely changed/transformed that he could only whisper Truly He is the Son of God! 


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