Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Lex Talionis

Where to begin?  These are some of the most discussed, interpreted, debated, and very frankly ignored scriptures in the New Testament.

 They have been interpreted literally.  If someone sues you and is awarded your cloak, then we throw in the coat at no extra charge.

They have been interpreted historically and culturally.  That is, in the day they were written and within the Eastern culture, it was acceptable to strike a subordinate or a slave with the back side of the hand.  This was a sign of dominance.  Turning the other cheek to the senior offered a dilemma.  

Striking the cheek now presented would require the use of the left hand or the open palm.  Left hands were used for unclean purposes and the open handed slap was something of a challenge to fight, such as in later years the slap to the face with a glove might demand a duel between gentlemen.

The exegesis continues with allegorical interpretations.  The circumstances described represent how to respond to physical abuse, legal suits, government direction, and financial requests.  Principles in each area can be extracted

The principles are good but sometimes a rough fit.  Consider the admonishment to give not only your tunic but your cloak as well in today’s litigious society.  Over twenty years ago I was in 29 Palms, California.  Don’t confuse this with Palm Springs which is about an hour away and the hangout of the rich and pampered.  I was at the Marine Base controlling a live fire exercise.  Every few days we came in from the field to quarters on the main part of the base.  Each room had a bed, a desk with chair, and a television.  Do you remember rabbit ears?  Your reception was dependent upon how well you could manipulate these small antennae.

Of course, it didn’t matter much because all of the stations had terrible programming and all were sponsored by the same commercials:  Sue somebody, divorce somebody, or come down off of drugs.  California was truly a trendsetter in pitting the nation against itself with legions of lawyers ready to do barrister battle on our behalf.

About ten years later, I was in the middle of government contracting.  This was best value contracting.  That meant the proposal evaluation included a review of the contractor’s ability to do the job, the price, and the track record of the contractor.  I assigned review teams to these.  They always made a good selection.  I like to look at one more thing just to see if there were any red flags among the competing bids.  I purposely left myself out of the evaluation process.  That liberated me to look at one other thing:  risk.  I liked to know how large the legal department was at each company.  A large legal department might signal a company looking to sue if they couldn’t perform he job, underbid, or just saw the government as an easy target.  Taking the principles from the Sermon on the Mount as stand-alone axioms just didn’t seem to fit in the modern world.

So how do we interpret these scriptures?  I suggest we look at the last verse in the pericope.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus uses the word therefore to tie in what he is about to say to what he has been saying.  So how do we interpret these teachings?  As Jesus told us to, in the context of being perfect—being complete-as our Father in heaven is complete.

That brings us to the subject of:
Lex Talionis
Nice word, but few speak Latin these days.
 It means the Law of Retribution or Retaliation.
We need laws for vengeance?  It seems that the desire for revenge is seeded deeply within the human heart.  Who would come up with laws about revenge?
Really?  God had to make laws to teach us revenge?
No.  He gave laws to limit the extent of revenge.  It seems that man’s heart was not yet ready for the perfect love of its Creator.  The law limited the extent of the revenge exacted.
You mean like an eye for an eye?
Tooth for a tooth.
Right on the money again.
What if someone lost a hand?
They may take a hand from the offender.
For a foot?
A  foot.
What about a burn?
A burn returned.
What about if one takes the life of another.
Then the law of retribution affords a like may be taken in return.
Where do you find these laws?
This set comes from the 21st Chapter of Exodus.
I guess that pretty much kept things out of court.
Not really.
What else could there be?
Two men are fighting and they bump into a pregnant woman and the baby comes out but there is no further damage.  They must pay what the husband demands and the court says is fair.
You are making this us as you go along.
Nope.  Same chapter in Exodus.
At least the secular courts have some sanity to them and don’t follow these guidelines.
Actually, they do—especially those in the western world.
You mean I can get sued for an arm and a leg.
I have never seen a judgment like that rendered in this country.
You have, but didn’t recognize it.  Up to a point early in the second millennia after Christ’s death and resurrection there were some interesting developments in English law—where we get most of our common law.
An eye for an eye and a foot for a foot makes for a nation of half blind people with a limp.
That humor is too arid even for my taste.
So the judges of the land started equating a foot with a monetary value.  They assigned a monetary value to a hand, a tooth, and even a life.
So every man does have his price.
Now who’s a little on the dry side?
It just seems sort of odd.
More so that cutting off hands and plucking out eyes?
Point taken.
The early English name for this was Wergild or  Wergeld.
Great, more words nobody uses any more.
It means Blood Gold.  Literally it was the giving of gold or its equivalent for the life or limb taken by an offender.  It was part of both Germanic and English jurisprudence.
I wonder if that’s where we came up with the tooth fairy leaving money under the pillow.
You know, getting a quarter for losing a tooth.
No, no, no…You got a quarter? I only got a dime.
Don’t sweat it.  The rates have gone up a bunch since you lost any teeth.
I don’t think the tooth fairly has anything with assigning monetary value to body parts.
It seems that we have modified this whole compensation thing quite a bit these days in the good ole US of A.
Yes and in several ways.  First we have separated the criminal and civil law.  One for punishment and one for compensation.
We also have expanded the concept of damages beyond reasonable compensation for actual damages and added something we call punitive damages.
You mean like the person gets eight hundred dollars to cover the doctor’s visit for spilling a cup of hot coffee on their own leg and eight million to teach the fast food restaurant that didn’t warn its customers that its coffer was hot as lesson they will remember.
Exactly.  That latter part is known as punitive damages.
Seems like a big step backwards.
How so?
Shouldn’t there be some boundaries on what people can get when something bad happens to them?
Some would say so.  Today the debate is called tort reform.
It’s about time somebody did something!
Actually, God did something very early.  Remember Lex Talionis?
Placing limits on what a damaged party is entitled to as far as retaliation.  Wow, the pendulum surely swings back and forth on this one.
Sure does.
So I guess that God wants us to go back to an eye for an eye?
God wants to bring the pendulum to a complete halt.
You mean like a compromise?  Stop it somewhere in the middle.  God compromising?  Who’d a thunk it?
Not a compromise—a revelation.
What’s being revealed?
God’s heart.
It’s a cardio revelation?
Some might call it a cardio revolution.
I’m guessing that another vocabulary word is heading my way?
Sounds like charisma.
That’s one of the words we derive from its Greek roots.
And it means?
Divine love, from the Divine Heart, or another word you have heard often—grace.
How did we get from an eye for an eye to grace?
You mean the teachings of Jesus, especially those from the Sermon on the Mount.
Yes, but I also mean Jesus without any qualifying adjectives, adverbs, or other quantification.
The world in all of its sin and rejection of God and his love deserved to be judged.  It—we deserved to be condemned
I guess the law of an eye for an eye would be more than we can imagine on a world wide scale—more than I want to imagine anyway.
We deserved condemnation but received love.  We received love that we did not earn, deserve, or in any way merit.  We just did not deserve either God’s love or his forgiveness.
But He gave them love and forgiveness.
Yes.  He gave us grace.
So what do we do now?
That’s a question that all Christians should ask themselves every day.  How do I respond to God’s grace?
Any suggestions?
Let God finish the good work that he has begun in us.  Let him make us complete.  Let him perfect us.
And how does this tie in with an eye for an eye?
We return hate with love.
What about persecution?
With love.
I was trying to trick you.
It’s a foolproof formula.
So much so that even those without God know to return love for love.
Love for love:  That’s about all I can manage without getting out of my comfort zone.
We should all get out more.
So all we need is love?
That’s a good one.  What verse did that come from?
Actually it’s the chorus.
To what?
All You Need is Love.
More vocabulary…

Matthew 5:38-48 (New International Version, ©2010)

Eye for Eye
    38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Love for Enemies

    43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

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