When men strive together … But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life,24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. [Ex 21:22-25 partial, ESV]
I think it is worth noting that “eye for an eye” was a profoundly moderate way to look at justice in the time it was first penned. It remains unimaginably gentle as justice goes in some places today, such as countries under Islamic law. The point of the message “eye for an eye” is to require no more than what is fair. It was (and is) often desired to seek far more in recompense than was originally taken in the first wrong doing. For example, in our own society a man can sue McDonalds for a million dollars for being scalded by hot coffee. If we followed eye for eye philosophy in our justice system, there would be no such thing as punitive damages and far less in the way of pain and suffering damages awarded. We claim to be a Christian nation, but we not only fail to forgive, we fail to uphold even the basic justice of “eye for an eye.”
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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. [Mt 5:38-39 ESV]
What Jesus had to say is abused almost as much as what Moses said. To have a proper understanding of what Jesus said here, you need to have a proper understanding of the passage he referenced (discussed above). Since we now understand that an eye for an eye means that we should not take more than what is fair, we can better examine what Jesus meant. Moses essentially said to pay back evenly is justice. Jesus took it a step further by saying that to show mercy out of compassion is better than offering cold justice. Jesus also said to treat others “as you would be treated” – he did not say “as you are treated.” This is essentially the same message.
We think we want justice because it seems right. What we really want – and need – is mercy. We need to be forgiven. Mercy transcends and sits superior over justice. This is why the Mercy Seat in the temple sat above the ark of the covenant (law). To sacrifice is just, to be merciful is better. This is why it is written that mercy is better than sacrifice (Hos 6:6, Mt 9:13). Perhaps the most critical point of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion is to show us the truth of this axiom. He shows mercy toward us by suffering the justice we deserve that we might enjoy his divine mercy.