Knowing Justice - Deuteronomy 19:11-21 & Matthew 5:38-48

We don't always get our “druthers.” There are some things that life just not present to us the way we would prefer. I want a world without cancer. I want a world without strokes. I want a world without dementia and Alzheimer's disease. I want a garden that does not grow weeds. I want a world without war, violence, racism, greed, and famine. I want a Bible that tells me exactly what I need to hear with no contradiction, wavering, or uncertainty. I want God to play by my rules and accept my priorities.
I can keep dreaming. We all can. At the end of the day, however, we have to deal with the reality before us. We don't get to live in Neverland. This is the world we have, and we have to accept it as it is.
Today's passage is one of those texts that makes me uncomfortable. Deuteronomy expresses the legal code of Ancient Israel. In some places, it does a good job of presenting God and God's will in a way that Jesus would find acceptable. In other places like this chapter, it falls short. We can try to explain that away as legal code for government versus individual morality, but Jesus did not seem to make such distinctions. This passage simply does not measure up to Jesus' teaching. It falls short.
It's not only Jesus who had issues with the concepts presented here. In Exodus, laws concerning retribution were established with the sense of limiting revenge. The same is the tenor of such laws in Leviticus. Deuteronomy seems to be the only text including language that the guilty should not be shown mercy. It is the only voice setting forth legal standards for restitution and redress that do not recognize mercy in the limitation of a violent response for murder. When Deuteronomy says, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” it is singular in taking mercy, pity, and compassion off the table.
Jesus had a different take. “You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, 'Do not resist one who is evil.'”
That sounds to us like individual piety. We want to separate that from concerns over legal definitions. Part of the problem we have with a distinction between legal and personal is that we treat our justice system as removed from daily life. There are professionals who deal with laws, lawsuits, court cases, and trials. In Jesus' day, the court consisted of the men of the town who would sit at the gate to hear cases, witness contracts, and make judgments on legal matters. Only special cases would be taken to the “professionals.”
Jesus lived in a different context where people generally made no distinction between legal and personal justice. In fact, while we tend to interpret Jesus' words here in terms of individual piety, the words he quotes are from three legal passages that all stipulate God's commands for the nation of Israel in relation to legal justice codes. Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, and Deuteronomy 19 are all passages detailing how judgment was to be carried out in cases of death, violence, theft, and so forth. They were passages dealing with sentencing for what we would consider felonies under our own legal codes. Jesus turns that on its head.
First of all, Jesus addressed his followers in regard to how we are to seek justice. He reinterprets justice as stepping beyond the whole issue of retribution, revenge, and even sentencing. He places the onus on his followers to become agents of transformation in seeking restorative justice instead of a justice of retribution and punishment. What was a legal code to address violence now becomes worthless in the light of Jesus' words. Rather than punishment, Jesus calls for something entirely different. He calls us to move completely beyond a desire for retribution to seek a different mode of justice.
You have heard it said,” hardly seems in Jesus' mouth an acceptance that Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy were on the right page in presenting an appropriate picture of God's design for justice and righteousness. “You have heard it said,” would make us question those passages as unworthy of being considered good representations of God's will and purpose. It would cast them as not measuring up to the character of the One Jesus had come to present as God. “But I say to you,” places Jesus' words as an answer to a lesser understanding of God, a critique of sacred texts that did not get it right.
That can be hard to swallow. That can be hard to process, as we like to think of the Bible as one seamless whole without contradiction. The reality, however, is that Jesus did not accept everything in the “Law and the Prophets” with the same degree of validity and worth. This “You have heard it said,” in regard to three passages from the Scriptures is followed by another “You have heard it said,” in relation to an interpretation of a passage from Leviticus.
You have heard it said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,' but I say to you, 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,'” places a poor traditional interpretation of a Scriptural command on the same playing field as Jesus' reference to the earlier quotes. In Jesus' perspective here, they are all worthless expressions of how we are to live and understand God's designs for our lives.
Jesus just does not play fair. He criticizes passages from the Bible, interpretations of passages, the “Traditions of the Elders,” and still treats the Scriptures as worthy of our learning, study, and following. He refused to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but he left us wondering at times how we are to interpret and understand the Scriptures in front of us.
He calls us to what many name restorative justice. It is a call to seek reconciliation with those who offend and would cut themselves off from community by actions of violence, greed, and enmity. Jesus demands that we step up our game in a way that moves us out of cycles of violence.
Exodus called for establishing cities of refuge where people could flee revenge killings. Jesus asks for more. He demands we stop the whole concept of revenge in its tracks by addressing those who would use violence against us with surprising initiatives of peacemaking.
Instead of the pity Deuteronomy decries, Jesus teaches us to challenge us to see the humanity of those who would oppose us and respond in ways that press them to do the same. Turning the other cheek is not a passive action. It is not the response of a doormat. It is a strong action designed and taken to diffuse conflict. It affirms the humanity of both victim and oppressor. It forces both into a new context where dialogue can begin.
Deuteronomy's attitude toward violent crime did not measure up as an expression of God's will, character, and purpose. Exodus and Leviticus took a step forward in grasping that violent retribution was in need of limitation. It is only in Jesus' words, however, that we see the clearer picture of God calling us to a higher ethic and understanding that leaves violence out of consideration.
This is no comforting place to live. This challenge should indeed make us feel uncomfortable. It is revolutionary in its application. It means we must respond to violence, but in a way that does not remove us from risk and vulnerability. It means we let go of our instinct for seeking revenge. It means living life according to a completely different paradigm. It is not for the faint of heart. Are we up to the task? Taking Jesus on his own terms requires knowing what justice looks like and then doing it.

©Copyright 2018, Christopher B. Harbin 


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