An eye for an eye is one of those Biblical phrases that has worked itself into the common lexicon.
It’s a striking phrase (and a little horrifying if you think about it being carried out). Usually associated with Old Testament justice it’s commonly understood as a harsh, ungracious attitude of revenge contrary to the love and grace of the New Testament. This was the view in our Lord’s day too. But, an eye for an eye is not a call to vigilante justice or cold-blooded revenge, but a law of equitable justice (Deuteronomy 19, Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20). In the context of the book of Leviticus 24, starting in verse 13, justice was handed out by judges and the whole congregation. Here, the death penalty is prescribed for blasphemy and murder. But if a man killed another man’s beast, the law demanded the man provide the value of the beast he killed. If someone caused a blemish, the penalty was a blemish. I don’t live in ancient Israel, and neither do you, so we do not follow the laws of that country in this country. However, the principle of the law is just and we still follow the attitude of an eye for an eye.
An eye for an eye was never about revenge, but equal justice. The punishment needs to fit the crime. If a boy throws a ball through the neighbor’s window, a just penalty would be to have window to be replaced. It’s not justice to have the boy beheaded. It’s not justice to have all new windows installed in every room of the house. An eye for an eye, a window for a window. If someone damages your property, you didn’t win the lottery and you don’t get to wring every penny out of the person for “emotional damage”. The wrongdoer should put things back, as best they can. If you murder, the penalty will be stiff; life for life. But you shouldn’t be executed for backing over your neighbor’s mailbox. If you do something wrong, make it right, as best you can. If you break a borrowed tool, replace it with one of equal or greater value. If someone breaks your “Made in China” hammer, don’t demand they upgrade to something you wouldn’t have spent the cash on yourself. The Old Testament system was actually quite just. An eye for an eye is the opposite of selfish revenge and vindictiveness. Jesus explains its true meaning by teaching that we are to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give of our self and our time (Matthew 5:38-42). This passage is not about defending our rights but giving them up. Laying aside what is technically our right for the furtherance of the gospel and the kingdom. Jesus made a whip and ran the money changers out of the temple when the glory of God was defamed, but when he was reviled, he reviled not again. Follow Jesus’ example in fulfilling this law (1 Peter 2:21-25).