In the ancient world, a section from a code of conduct called the Code of Hammurabi went like this:
An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.
This seems harsh today, but scholars have pointed out that Hammurabi’s Code was actually a step forward in the justice system in its own day. The idea is that revenge or payback cannot exceed the level of the wrong committed. In effect, Hammurabi’s Code put a cap on retaliation. In today’s world, a literal eye for an eye sounds a bit morbid. That doesn’t mean that we moderns don’t understand and agree with the concept, though. There is a certain symmetry to equivalent retribution.
Now enter Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives these instructions to his followers:
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” 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. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. – Matthew 5:38-42
Wow. Jesus just turned Hammurabi’s Code on its head. Rather than retaliating, we are to meet evil with good.
In Romans 12:17-21, Paul brings this teaching of Jesus into a new situation. Though he uses different words, it isn’t difficult to hear the echoes of Jesus in Paul’s message. He unequivocally tells us (1) not to repay with evil with evil, (2) not to take revenge, and (3) to overcome evil with good. We Jesus followers are called to live very differently than they eye-for-eye world around us.
Does this mean that God doesn’t care about justice, though? Absolutely not! Notice what Paul says in verse 19 when he talks about revenge:
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
In these words, we find that God isn’t overlooking justice. Instead, he is reserving it for himself. We Christians, then, aren’t just giving everyone a free pass. Instead, we are trusting our justice to God himself. God, and not us, is the one who will repay.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I want to trust God that much. What if he, in his wondrous justice, chooses to show mercy? Or, what if he doesn’t act as quickly as I’d like. What if I feel like I’m always on the losing end? It sure is tempting to look to Hammurabi instead of Jesus when I am wronged.
Thank God that he isn’t like me! Romans has clearly said that all are deserving of judgment. If God followed Hammurabi’s code, no one would be left! But God has been merciful and calls us to be people of mercy. That means that we refrain from retaliation in favor of letting God have his way. He will ultimately bring justice, whether through mercy or punishment. The question is, will we trust him?