Sweating the small stuff – Matthew in Advent day 5

“If we do an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will be a blind and toothless nation.”

Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr, waving to the crowd at a civil rights protest in Washington DC.
Picture used under a Creative Commons licence.

The Gospel of Matthew is written as a series of six narrative sections, telling the story of Jesus’ life, interspersed with five sections of teaching. The beginning of the Gospel links back into the past of the Old Testament. This, the last of the teaching sections, links forward to the future. Advent is a time when we look forward to the return of Christ.

Woe 4 Neglecting what is important

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Matthew 23:23-24 NIV UK

Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.

Matthew 5:7 NIV UK

An eye for an eye is not only in the Bible, Leviticus 24:19-21, reads, “Anyone who injures their neighbour is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death.,” but is in an even older as a moral code, going back to the ancient Babylonian code of Hammurabi. Most Biblical scholars interpret this command as a maximum, a restriction on retaliation. The sentence for a crime must never exceed the crime. There is always room for leniency. Jesus take on that law is interesting.

‘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.Matthew 5:38-40

Matthew 5:38-40

Jesus was not against the law. Jesus upheld the law, but was flexible. An inflexible take on Justice, that murderers must be executed, is what some would describe as justice, but I wonder what those same people would say about stringently applying the Bible’s laws of theft?

Let me explain, the Bible says that a thief must pay back twice what they have stolen. So if someone steals a loaf of bread worth 80 pence the maximum sentence should be £1.60, not a prison sentence of several years as in the plot of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. The doubling is for a reason, they pay back the stolen value of the bread, plus a fine of equal value. The thief ends up out of pocket by the same amount as that they stole.

Now imagine an executive embezzles £827 million from the company they work for. That executive should be fined on the same basis £1.6 billion. I do not hear any of the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade on the political right asking for that, though it from the same code of Justice as execute all murderers. (Amount from Nick Leeson’s Wikipedia page.) I am not suggesting we should do this, as I said the prescribed penalties are maximum penalties. It is injustice if the penalty ever exceeds the crime.

Jesus said that the Pharisees were looking at the details but missing the big picture. The big picture is justice, mercy and faithfulness. Not just justice alone, mercy and faithfulness or trustworthiness too. These three are the qualities God is seeking. Jesus did not condemn tithing or getting the details right. But he did condemn the practise of allowing adherence to laws preventing people from helping other people.

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