“Getting Even—Or Not”

Have you seen a bumper sticker, “I don’t get mad, I get even”? Last decade a book was published with title, Don’t Get Mad: Get Even. Look at what Jesus says about revenge in Matthew 5:38–42.

Do not get even! Understand how “an eye for an eye” expresses God’s justice. The principle to which Jesus refers is stated in Leviticus 24 as well as Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 19. Very similar expressions have been found in the Code of Hammurabi and in ancient Egyptian literature. It is sometimes called lex talionis, or the law of retribution. Why did God give this principle to his people? On the one hand, it guards against excessive punishment. But as you look at the contexts in which it occurs in Scripture, it also seems to emphasize that just appropriate punishment must be administered. God is not a respecter of persons, and neither should the administration of justice be partial or biased. The living and true God is perfectly just. He defines justice and his final judgment is perfectly equitable—because he does it. Vengeance is ultimately his. That is one reason we don’t have to get even. “Retribution is never for the purpose of placating personal revenge but for the purpose of satisfying justice. Justice is not vindictive though it is vindicatory.” (John Murray, Principles of Conduct, p. 174) Notice how Jesus introduces his reference, with “you have heard that it was said,” not, “it is written.” He is not abrogating God’s justice but calling you to a higher standard than the way the principle was taught and used.

Refuse to give in to vindictiveness. Given our sinful desire to get even, it is not hard to see that God’s principle became twisted into an excuse for personal vengeance. That desire for personal vengeance is as old as the second generation of the human race (Cain killing Abel), and later, in the same chapter of Genesis, Lamech sings his sword song to his wives, boasting of how he has avenged himself of an injury by killing a young man. The pagan culture surrounding Israel in Jesus’ day, the world into which the apostles would go with the good news, was still profoundly influenced by a classical Greek view of vengeance. I saw Sophocles’ play “Electra” performed on Friday. The director’s notes summarize: “Vengeance for a wrong was personal, and justice often required the person who was wronged, or their family, to carry out that vengeance. Moreover, the gods and other divine forces demanded vengeance.” The play was performed in the building of Grace Baptist Church. Joshua W. D. Smith’s director’s notes conclude: “Hopefully the power of Electra’s emotions will tell its own story and inspire reflection on the nature of our own hearts. As a final word, however, it does not escape us that this entire play about justice, vengeance, and the divine, is being staged below the sign of the cross: in Christ crucified, the foolishness of God is wiser than men. (see 1 Cor. 1:20–25)” Strip away the Greek mythology, and you discover that 21st century Americans are not much different from ancient Greeks in seeking to get even.

Be willing to suffer wrong. Turn the other cheek. Being struck on the right cheek is probably not a roundhouse punch, but, if the opponent is right handed, a thoroughly insulting backhanded slap. Jesus commands you to turn the other cheek instead of responding in kind. Jesus summarizes what he is about to illustrate with examples, “Do not resist the evil person.” Some take that out of the context of the rest of Scripture and see it as a prohibition against serving in the military or as a police officer. A few would refuse any opposition, even against an intruder into the home (I heard of some who refuse to lock the door, as that would be resisting the evil person!). But Jesus rebuked the high priest when he ordered the Savior to be struck. Paul reminds us that governing authorities have been given the sword—to use. But our temptation is usually on the other side—being too willing to get even. Jesus gives additional examples. Give up your cloak to one taking your tunic. Literally, go the extra mile. Give to the person asking from you. Obedience in all of these matters requires wisdom and the instructions are not to be taken out of context too literally. But beware of using the context to avoid obedience. The righteousness of the kingdom of heaven indeed does have to be greater than that of the teachers of the law. This kind of quiet obedience can have a profound effect. “His disciples must not resist one who is evil, that is, they must not (according to the rule ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’) return evil for evil. They must not counter an unfair demand of their neighbor with an equally unfair demand of their own. They must not attempt to avenge themselves on their neighbor with like conduct but rather seek to win him with love, patience, long-suffering, leniency, and a spirit of accommodation. Christ is absolutely not condemning every instance of defending one’s own rights. . . . but the rights of others as well as our own must, according to Christ, be esteemed so highly that they may not in any way be subordinated to personal vindictiveness, hatred, self-interest, to the evil tendencies of the human heart.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, p. 161)

Trust the Savior who suffered for you. Is it difficult to promote justice and to avoid personal vengeance while doing so? Listen to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 50:6–9. Listen to Jesus’ prayer as he is nailed to the cross. 1 Peter 2:21–25 points suffering Christians to the example of the Lord, who did not take revenge. But notice that Peter describes Jesus as far more than just an example. He bore in his own body on the tree our sins—including the sins of revenge, of quick getting even. Obeying Jesus in turning the other cheek is incredibly difficult. But he not only gave his life for you, he has sent his Spirit to mold your heart, your tongue, and your life.

In Ephesians 4:29–32 Paul has the Ephesians (and you) put into practice what Jesus taught. That kind of life does not come naturally. But, by God’s grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you can replace getting even with doing good.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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