Justice According to Jesus, Part 1

Photo by Unsplash

Jesus spends 3/5 of his moral teachings on three of the great commands in the ten commandments: Thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not bear false witness.

He brings in the streams of oath-taking and divorce law to drive home the true nature of these three commands: oath-taking and divorce law had been used as license to get around them. That is abuse of the law, Jesus says; go back to the heart, the core purpose, the clear vision. Don’t look for loopholes, look for the best way.

(Interesting, by the way, that a discourse on law is broken into five sections. In biblical typology five is the number of grace. Perhaps a reminder that law itself IS a grace—a gift from God meant to give us life.)

Defining Justice

For the last two sections of this discussion Jesus leaves the ten commandments behind and instead draws out two of the more significant laws found elsewhere in the Old Covenant. These aren’t arbitrary and they treat of universal subjects: he didn’t happen to talk about, say, the prohibition against mixing linen and cotton or the proper weight of temple spoons.

The first law he treats here defines our concept of justice. The second defines our concept of love.

Justice first.

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)

It’s really here that Jesus gets radical. In the first 3/5 of the discourse, as we’ve seen, Jesus didn’t change laws (despite the refrain in church circles that he did), nor did he really say anything NEW; he reminded people of things they already knew and pulled away their excuses for breaking those laws.

He called them back to a higher vision, a better way: to a life that is actually lived righteously from the heart as opposed to a checklist approach where we keep our noses clean but our hearts are filthy.

(When I was a kid my parents—more than once—illustrated the idea of “keeping the spirit of the law and not just the letter” in the context of housecleaning. No, if your responsibility is to clean the bathroom and today’s chore is wipe down the sink but you ignored the overflowing garbage and the pile of towels on the floor, you did not actually fulfill your duty because you wiped down the sink.)

Eyes, Teeth, and the Limits of Retribution

The Old Testament gave a fast and easy definition: “An for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

That sounds harsh to modern ears, because we mostly deal with fines and community service rather than eyes and teeth, but in its context this was much like the divorce law—not so much a license as a limit.

People were already seeking out their own justice, and true to form they tended to overstate the damage done and demand outsized payback. When someone knocks out my tooth it’s not just my smile that gets damaged but my pride, so I’ll have his whole head, thank you very much.

In that kind of “justice system” the rewards go to the mighty and it matters very much WHO you offended, not just what you did. The law of God sets a limit on that: judge damage fairly, repay it in accordance with the damage done, don’t play favorites.

A tooth is worth a tooth, not a life or someone’s freedom; an eye is worth an eye. End of story.

But we tend to see license where God is setting limits, don’t we? Now this eye-for-eye thing becomes the whole way we measure JUSTICE. We take the whole vast idea of justice and judgment and boil it down to a tit-for-tat retribution.

There is, of course, merit to this particular law.

But it misses the big picture of justice by a long, long way.

Justice According to Jesus

God’s justice, as written about by the prophets and revealed in the law, is not primarily retributive at all. It’s primarily restorative.

Jesus would demonstrate that fully and personally by going to the cross and making the full restoration of the entire human race possible.

The Old Testament presents this vision of justice-as-mercy over and over again:

Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)

This is what the LORD says: “Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed.” (Jeremiah 21:12)

This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Administer true justice: show mercy and compassion to one another.” (Zechariah 7:9)

Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. ( Isaiah 30:18)

“I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations . . . A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory.” (Matthew 12:18-21)

“He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

(Scriptures compiled by Derek Flood in his work Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross)

With that goal in mind Jesus challenges his followers to reacting very differently to wrongdoing done against themselves. Don’t respond with retribution at all, but with generosity and kindness. Your enemies won’t know what to do with it.

There is a clue here, by the way, to what Jesus was doing on planet earth in the first place.

Lots of people won’t like it when you do this. We all want justice for ourselves, but most of us tie that very tightly with people who’ve hurt us getting their just deserts. So tightly, some of us, that we can’t actually imagine one without the other. How CAN we be restored, if the other person never has to give up an eye?

A Monkey Wrench Called Grace

Jesus is detaching justice from retribution.

As I wrote about in an earlier post, he’s asking us to break the cycle of sin and punishment, to interrupt the whole thing and throw it off-kilter by offering forgiveness and generous grace.

The enemy doesn’t know what to do with that.

WE don’t know what to do with that.

We want our grace to be deserved. (Ha, ha.)

But we can’t so much have it both ways, can we? Not when we’ve all got eyes and teeth to our record.

But Can It Be Done?

I suspect that of all Jesus’s teachings this one is the hardest to practice and the least actually done. It’s also one of the most explosively powerful. Sadly it hasn’t always been Christians who took it most seriously. I highly recommend watching the movie GANDHI for a record of how this exact principle, learned from the Sermon on the Mount, freed India. It also inspired the approach taken by the American Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King Jr.

Even today, both India and civil rights are threatened when this foundation is forgotten or abandoned, when the path to freedom becomes about retribution and revenge. We are in danger when we forget.

Revenge is a hunger that can never be satisfied. It must instead be laid to rest.

Jesus’s words are clear and powerful in this passage. For the most part, I want to let them stand on their own—but there’s more to be unpacked here, and in next week’s post we’ll do just that.

(This is Part 51 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here.)



, ,




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *