SOTM: Matthew 5:38-42 (Let the punishment fit the crime)

Very fun video. Lyrics relevant to the post start at 3:05, but I wouldn’t skip anything. [Lyrics in the video have been updated, very cleverly. The original follows. For those not familiar with the work of Gilbert & Sullivan, here’s a link.]

Mikado:
A more humane Mikado never
Did in Japan exist,
To nobody second,
I’m certainly reckoned
A true philanthropist.
It is my very humane endeavour
To make, to some extent,
Each evil liver
A running river
Of harmless merriment.

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime;

And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment!

All prosy dull society sinners,
Who chatter and bleat and bore,
Are sent to hear sermons
From mystical Germans
Who preach from ten till four.
The amateur tenor, whose vocal villainies
All desire to shirk,
Shall, during off-hours,
Exhibit his powers
To Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.

The lady who dyes a chemical yellow
Or stains her grey hair puce,
Or pinches her figure,
With particular vigor
With permanent walnut juice.
The idiot who, in railway carriages,
Scribbles on window-panes,
We only suffer
To ride on a buffer
In Parliamentary trains.

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime;

And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment!

Chorus:
His object all sublime
He will achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime;

And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment!

Mikado:
The advertising quack who wearies
With tales of countless cures,
His teeth, I’ve enacted,
Shall all be extracted
By terrified amateurs.
The music-hall singer attends a series
Of masses and fugues and “ops”
By Bach, interwoven
With Spohr and Beethoven,
At classical Monday Pops.

The billiard sharp who any one catches,
His doom’s extremely hard —
He’s made to dwell —
In a dungeon cell
On a spot that’s always barred.
And there he plays extravagant matches
In fitless finger-stalls
On a cloth untrue
With a twisted cue
And elliptical billiard balls!

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime;

And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment!

Chorus:
His object all sublime
He will achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime;

And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment!
___________________________________________________________

SOTM

(Mat 5:38-42 ESV) “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 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. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

This is surely one of the most controversial passages in the NT, for several reasons. The biggest problem we have as interpreters is our routine failure to read the passage in light of its OT roots. A little historical context will carry us a very long way toward a better understanding.

We should start with —

(Lev 24:19-20 ESV) 19 If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him,  20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. 

This has become a common metaphor for vengeance, but this is not the original meaning.

The principle of punishing an offender with the same injury that he has inflicted is called lex talionis. Lex talionis is the standard of justice, one for one, not two or more for one or one for two or more. It sets a measurable, precise, equivalent penalty for each offense. It stands as the basic principle in several ancient judicial systems; eg, it is found in the Code of Hammurabi (§190) and before that in the laws of Lipit-Ishtar (§25). There is a major difference between the Hebraic law and the Code of Hammurabi, though, for in the latter code this standard is applied only in the case of freemen.

The occurrence of lex talionis in the OT used to be quite embarrassing to interpreters who viewed it as a remnant of a barbaric society. Recent study, however, has turned this opinion on its head. Scholars have discovered that the laws of Eshnunna (§42–48) and the laws of Ur-Nammu (§15–19), which predate the Code of Hammurabi by a few centuries, set fines for personal injury. Only injuries against the gods and the king were treated seriously. Later the laws of Lipit-Ishtar and the Code of Hammurabi introduced the principle of lex talionis. Thereby these law codes elevated injuries against persons from purely civil torts to criminal law, according to J. J. Finkelstein (JCS 15 [1961] 98; A. Diamond, Iraq 19 [1957] 154; T. Frymer-Kensky, BA2 43 [1980] 233). These lawgivers had come to realize that inflicting personal injury damages both the welfare of society and the moral order in the community (Finkelstein, 98).

This does not mean, however, that “tit for tat” was practiced literally, either in Babylon or in ancient Israel. In fact, in some texts where this principle is stated, it cannot be meant literally. In Deut 19:20–21, eg, this principle comes after laws against acting as a malicious witness in order to provide a legal principle for determining the just retribution deserved by one who is guilty of being a false witness (T. Frymer-Kensky, 232).

… Therefore, lex talionis primarily serves as the basis for establishing equivalence of loss in a given case. For example, a slave who lost an eye was given his freedom in return for his loss (Exod 21:26). Of course, one of the difficulties in determining equivalencies for the loss of a bodily member is that it is possible that the courts will require too high a compensation of the offender.

Thus in stating lex talionis the law is providing a principle both for the court to determine a just award in cases of personal injury and for the court to correct any abuses of unjust compensation that might arise by exacting either too much or too little from offenders. Lex talionis, nevertheless, was applied literally in cases of premeditated murder (Num 35:16–21). Since a person has intrinsic value, being made in the image of God (Gen 9:5–6), no compensation is sufficient for the taking of a human life (cf Ps 49:8–9[7–8]). Punishment in kind in case of murder is, however, not equivalent to blood vengeance (Noordtzij, 248–49).

John E. Hartley, Leviticus (Word Bible Commentary 4; Accordance/Thomas Nelson electronic ed. Waco: Word Books, 1992), 411-412 (boldface added).

In short, “eye for an eye” means that the penalty for taking an eye should be the value of an eye — not 50 times the value of an eye. Many ancient law codes imposed grossly disproportionate penalties for crimes. Others, especially in the case of foreigners or slaves, imposed little or no penalty at all. Moses required that the penalty be measured by the loss — very much in line with much of the Anglo-American legal tradition. In the US, there are countless exceptions, but the starting point of legal damages is always the amount of the loss suffered.

In Judaism, the rabbis came to develop a series of financial penalties calculated to approximate the loss suffered for various crimes and injuries. It was, as the Mikado declares, “a very humane endeavour.”

So what is Jesus’s complaint with a perfectly just concept? Well, sometimes justice is not the best option.  Sometimes mercy is even better.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Sermon on the Mount, Sermon on the Mount, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to SOTM: Matthew 5:38-42 (Let the punishment fit the crime)

  1. R.J. says:

    Thing is, the Scribes twisted this law to justify payback, resentment, hatred, and even vengence. Thus, nullifying other parts of the law that required love and mercy for one’s neighbor. No longer was it about meting out a punishment fit for the crime. But gloating your enemies downfall.

  2. Alabama John says:

    You are to forgive him 70 times 7 if he doesn’t pay back, Matthew 18.

    The second unspoken lesson is don’t be dumb enough to loan him 70 times 7 so you won’t have to forgive that many times.

    Forgive, but keep an eye out.

  3. R.J. says:

    my comments missing

  4. Alabama John says:

    Jay,
    Was in Russellville yesterday. We ate at Dorothy Taylors restaurant. you remember, its the one when you go in, smokers to the right and non smokers to the left.
    We went left and enjoyed the visit with her.
    We go there from one direction and leave another by the airport. At the second crossroads, Todd Corner I think its called. Dorothy said she was raised there.
    Sorry to hear the street with the big white house with red trim and others old like it have quit having the Halloween open houses with the old women living there all dressed up scary telling how their house is haunted.
    Dorothy said all the old women that did that have died.
    Thought you might find that interesting.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    AJ,

    Russellville was a very long time ago. Russellville High School class of 1972. I appreciate the memories. It’s a great town.

Leave a Reply