The phrase, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” is a quotation directly from the law codes of the Old Testament. Specifically this comes from Exodus 21:24. But the context matters. This aspect of the law was specifically designed to guide judges in formal courts of law about how to sentence offenders. It was not meant to encourage vindictiveness. Instead it was meant to restrain revenge. If the offense caused the loss of an eye then the taking of an eye balances the score, not greater retribution. This Scripture was meant to be left in the hands of objective and dispassionate judges who could work out disputes in ways that maintained justice but also permited mercy.
By the time that the scribes and Pharisees got hold of it the phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” took on the nature of personal vengeance. Like the hillbilly feuding that is so famous in our American history, it had come to mean that they had a God given right to even the score with any that offended them. This became even worse when it came to relationships with non-Jews or gentiles. Jesus quotes the speech of the Pharisees by saying, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” This was no doubt an accurate quotation of the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. And even though it sounds Scriptural it never occurs in the Bible in that way. God’s Word teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It never teaches us to hate our enemies. And it never meant what the scribes and Pharisees taught when they said that only Jews were neighbors and everyone else was enemies.
So Jesus teaching here would have astounded his listeners. “Turn the other cheek.” “Go the additional mile.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These are the characteristics of those who love God and obey his word expressed in both the Old and New Testaments. The contrast with the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees is astounding! The life to which Christians are called is extremely different from the lives of first century Jews as defined by their Jewish leaders. They had gone astray by trying to make God’s law into something that they could do. They had reshaped the law around their weakness and preferences.
Our human inclination may be to do the same thing with Jesus teaching. We want to say, “Ok Jesus, we love the way you put those awful scribes and Pharisees in their place. But we know what you want us to do now. We can take it from here.” And we rush out looking for opportunities to turn our cheeks, go additional miles, and love our enemies. This is a disaster! It is a disaster because in doing this we become the new scribes and Pharisees of our day. The truth is that we don’t know how to be Christians. The sooner we admit that and mean it, the better things will be. (Incidentally, this is called repentance.) So how can we be Christians if we don’t know how to do it? This is why Jesus sent the Holy Spirit. The Helper comes to guide us each day into the practical business of being Christians. If we make Jesus teaching into a new law that we think we can do, then we will find ourselves in exactly the same place as the scribes and Pharisees. That is what Jesus is trying to teach us. This is what he means when he says, “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” When Jesus says, “You must be perfect…” he is not laying down a requirement. He is making a promise about what he intends to accomplish in you through his Holy Spirit.