An Eye for an Eye
In Philadelphia recently a woman was thrown in jail because she couldn't pay $120 in library fines. Notices from the library didn't get to her because she had moved several times, including some stays at a battered women's shelter.
Meanwhile, in Boston a judge sentenced a convicted rapist to probation, and he told the victim to "get over it".
Is there no justice in the land?
An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth might seem medieval these days, but upon examination such justice is anything but Neanderthal in its intent. It would solve discrepancies in sentences for such disparate crimes as library fines and sexual assault. Putting it in contemporary parlance, "eye for an eye" translates to "let the punishment fit the crime". As a matter of justice, you are not to put out a man's eye for just any old reason, and you must not exact justice by putting out his tooth unless there is some compellingly good cause.
"Just recompense" was part of the law of Moses, with an emphasis on the word "just".
In the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18), a man is shown to owe a sum referred to as ten thousand talents. Scholars say this was a tremendous sum, comparable to sixty million days of wages. His penalty for such a debt, as allowed under the Mosaic economy, was to be bound to the creditor and to work for him until the debt was paid off - a form of slavery! But the creditor took mercy on him and forgave the debt completely.
Often correctly cited as a lesson on forgiveness, the parable also illustrates the concept of justice under the Law of Moses, under the system set up by mankind, and under the New Covenant.
The man who owed ten thousand talents was at first to be sold to pay off the debt (the Law of Moses), but instead he was forgiven (New Covenant). He immediately went out and confronted a man who owed him a pittance and had him thrown in prison (man's law), as if being behind bars would provide a means to pay off a debt. The original creditor learned of this cruelty and not only rescinded the forgiveness, but imposed a penalty even worse than working off the debt. The man was delivered to the tormentors (the mercy of the New Covenant removed).
For our purposes here, the parable teaches that mankind's way of applying justice is not God's way. Under true justice the punishment would fit the crime, but even with justice there is room for mercy. And there can be no mercy extended until justice is demanded. If the man had not owed the debt, there would have been no cause for mercy.
You be the judge. The lady with the library fine: Is it justice to put her in prison or to have her work off the debt? What would an eye for an eye demand?
And the fellow convicted of sexual assault: Was probation justice, or would a tooth for tooth demand a different sentence?
You be the judge. Which punishment fits the crime? And is the concept of an eye for an eye less just than what we have today?
A Matter of Perspective
Alexander Solzihenitsyn's fictional One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich chronicles just one day in the life of an inmate of a Siberian Gulag. At the end of the day, as the central character prepares for his rest, he reflects on all the day had brought.
"Shukov went to sleep, and he was very happy. He'd had a lot of luck today. They hadn't put him in the cooler. The gang hadn't been chased out to work in the Socialist Community Development. He'd finagled an extra bowl of mush at noon. The boss had gotten them good rates for their work. He'd felt good making that wall. They hadn't found that piece of steel in the frisk. Caesar had paid him off in the evening. He'd bought some tobacco. And he'd gotten over that sickness.
"Nothing had spoiled the day and it had almost been happy." Curious, is it not, how one's perspective of a good day is shaped by one's expectations. My expectations of a good day are vastly different from those of Shukov's, for they are shaped by my accustomed to comforts and blessings.
A man named Paul once sat in a Roman prison and wrote a remarkable letter. In spite of his circumstances, and in spite of a possible death sentence, Paul's message to the Philippians was one of rejoicing.
"With joy in my prayer for you all," he said (1:4). "Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice" (1:18). "Make my joy complete" (2:2). "I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me" (2:17-18). "Rejoice in the Lord" (3:1). "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice" (4:4).
Again and again Paul tells the Philippians to rejoice. What kind of man was this whose life was full of joy in spite of circumstances? Paul's mind was focused on things eternal rather than temporal, and it gave him great cause for joy. For we are robbed of joy by the loss of hope.
Most of us are not to the place where we could rejoice in a prison cell. Rejoicing can be hard in the best of circumstances, but Paul had learned a secret. "I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need." (4:11-12)
The secret is this: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (v 13)
Take all your worries and put them in a box. And put that box on the altar of God. Jesus once said to take his yoke upon us, and the picture of that is one that is more profound than first glance might indicate. A yoke was placed on two oxen and not one. As we take on the yoke of Jesus, he will be next to us as our yoke fellow, bearing the burden with us, and that gives us cause to rejoice.