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 an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.Matthew 5:38-42
There are endless stories of the transformative power of grace, but do we really and truly understand what grace is and how powerful it really is to transform a life? I’ve often stated that grace can be defined as “giving a gift which is undeserved.” This is to contrast the definition of mercy as “not giving the punishment that which is deserved.” In both cases, there is inherently the implication that what we deserve is far worse than what we receive. The offense or sin is not excused; in fact, it must be acknowledged in order for grace or mercy to have its maximum impact. However, we must understand that the most important aspect of grace and mercy is not that who receives it, but who gives it. In both cases, it is a deliberate act of the will to love in spite of the the circumstances that warrant anger and judgement.
When Jesus quotes a common saying of the day “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” he’s is not quoting the Old Testament law. He’s actually quoting a common tradition that originated with the Code of Hammurabi, who was king of Babylon from 1792-1750 BC. It was a law among the Babylonians over 1200 years before the Babylonian exile, and even predated the Exodus by another approximately 500 years. However, it was the basis of a system of justice that the Jewish law implemented in terms of the principle of letting the severity of the punishment equal the severity of the crime. It is a principle we know today as equal restitution. It was a practice of law arbitrated by the courts, but had devolved into a form of vigilantism, where victims or their families would take it upon themselves to execute judgement outside of the courts. Herein lies the danger of allowing law that was not dictated by God to infiltrate a society, because then we see a shift from the righteousness of the Kingdom to the righteousness of the individual who has been offended.
What Jesus is talking about here is to resist the temptation to take matters into your own hand and act out of a spirit of vengeance and self-righteousness. Furthermore, He takes it a step further and commands that we actively give grace to our attacker. If an evil person slaps you, our natural inclination is to strike back. If a vindictive person wants to take your clothes off your back in court, our natural inclination is resist and not give them anything. If they force you to go a mile, go further than what is demanded. And if anyone wants to borrow from you, don’t reject them. In all of these cases, the implication is that the first person listed is undeserving of the second person’s commanded response. And in each case, Jesus commands us to act individually with a heart of grace.
Let’s be clear here. Jesus is not speaking to the religious authorities of the day, nor is He speaking to the state authority. He is not dismissing the importance of societal order, nor is He suggesting that criminals should go unpunished in society. What He is saying, however, is to not be consumed by hatred and anger and react to injustice with emotional reactivity. Furthermore, He does go further and says we ought to as individuals extend grace to our offender in the hopes that it would change their hearts.
In recent months, we have seen a rise in mob justice in response to injustice. In fact, there have been multiple occasions over the last several decades of rioting and looting in response to societal injustice. While I completely understand the natural sentiment of those that choose to react in this manner, this is the antithesis of what Jesus is calling us to be as the Church. It is what makes the Bride of Christ different from the society in which we live. It is message that all too often, many Church leaders choose to ignore in favor of stoking the flames of violence against the state as a form of “civil disobedience” in spite of the fact that it is the very opposite of what Jesus commands us to do and who He commands us to be.
One of my favorite stories of all time was the story of a criminal vagabond who spent an inordinate amount of time in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to appease his hunger. After 20 years in prison, he is branded a criminal for life and must carry papers that bear the mark of his crime for the remainder of his life, thus effectively extending his imprisonment for the remainder of his days. This act of un-grace hardens the heart of this man and he spends his life scrounging from town to town. At one point, he even steals a coin from a child. See how far un-grace can twist the heart of a man.
Eventually, the criminal is found sleeping in an alley by a servant who offers him shelter with in the home of a priest. The priest offers him a warm meal and a bed to sleep in for the evening. He even offers him a place to stay for a time, and work to pay his own way. The criminal scoffs and in the middle of the night, he steals all of the silverware from a cupboard and as he is making his way out of the home, the priest happens upon him and the criminal assaults him.
The next day, the priest answers a knock on his door and it is the police with the criminal as he had been caught. Still nursing the wound on his head, he listened as the police officer recounts how the criminal had said the priest had gifted him the silverware. The priest, stands looks the criminal dead in the eye, and says “Yes, I did. But you forgot the most valuable pieces – these two silver candlesticks.” The criminal stands astonished, knowing that he doesn’t deserve this act of grace that the priest has bestowed upon him. Before the police leave, the priest looks at the criminal and utters these words:
“Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”
Of course, from here you must know the story of how Jean Valjean would go on to become an honest man, building a business in a small town, caring for a local prostitute named Fatine, and adopting her child Cosette. Throughout the remainder of the novel, Valjean is hounded by the specter of his past. Inspector Javert – representing a spirit of unforgiveness and the effects that it has on Valjean’s life is contrasted with the life changing grace of the Bishop Myriel. In the end of the novel, as Jean Valjean lays dying, the candlesticks are lit and rest upon the table at his bedside. He dies beneath their glow, basking in the sweet illumination of grace that has come to change his life and gifted him the blessings of fatherhood and ultimately peace.
Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, is widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces, if not the definitive masterpiece of French literature. It is the story of the transformative power of grace to triumph over the hardened heart of un-grace. It is a timeless story that still resonates today through history and art. Most importantly it is a story that speaks to heart of the gospel. In Victor Hugo’s own words:
“The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details … a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.”Alexander Welsh, “Opening and Closing Les Misérables”, in Harold Bloom, ed., Victor Hugo: Modern Critical Views (NY: Chelsea House, 1988), 155; Vol. 5, Book 1, Chapter 20