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Lex Talionis and the Virus

Lex Talionis and the Virus

Matthew 5:38-48


Since the dawn of time, people have been getting into fights, from minor disagreements to all-out wars. At first, it was fists, then sticks and rocks. From there, the history of warfare has progressed to spears, bows and arrows, catapults, up through the invention and harnessing of explosives. The whole idea was to wreak havoc upon an enemy to the same or higher degree than he had inflicted on us, our clan, or our nation.  This idea of aggression and retaliation is known as Lex Talionis, an eye-for-an-eye form of justice.  Probably the earliest known written of this is found in the Code of Hammurabi, c. 1750 BCE. 

We still see this kind of action/reaction today. One nation (or individual) dislikes something another country (individual) does that appears to damage the first nation. In retaliation, the damaged tribe or individual seeks to strike back, causing equal or more damage than was inflicted on it.  Often, this led to increasing attacks until sometimes it seemed that the whole world was at war, and the damage was almost incalculable in terms of loss of property and life. 

Jesus came along and proclaimed the Lex Talionis was no longer a valid solution. Instead, if someone were injured by another, the wounded or dishonored should not retaliate. If someone demanded a coat, not only the coat but a cloak should be given to the one demanding it. Instead of retaliation, the norm should be outright generosity. That, Jesus said, was the way it should be so that those who obeyed would reflect the generosity of God. 

We continuously hear of the generosity of God, in sermons, scripture, and studies. God loves us, forgives us, watches over us, protects us, helps us, and an entire litany of other attributes of God that describe what God does for us. When things are going well, it’s easy for us to remember these things, but let times get hard, situations become tempestuous, or threats seem overwhelming, it is often a lot harder not to say, “Why is God doing this to us? Where is God? Why are we suffering?  If God loves us, why doesn’t God fix things?” 

Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “…(F)or he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (v.45b).” We so often think in terms of rich and poor in these situations. Rain falls on both groups, but often the rich live in elevated areas while the poor are relegated to low-lying, flat plains. When floods come, the wealthy are usually not wiped out as the poor can often be. In illness, the rich can afford more and better healthcare while the poor struggle with the simple necessities of life, like food and shelter. The poor ask for help, but the rich are often more concerned with amassing their own wealth. The wealthy attribute their success in life as the result of hard work, being smarter in their dealings with others, and, sometimes, being favored by God. 

We have seen this in the past few months as we deal with the pandemic that has circled the globe. Many have lost their jobs due to businesses closing. Their low wages have limited their savings to the point where it is becoming an anxiety-ridden time, wondering if or when they are struck with the virus, if they will bankrupt the family, and they will be hungry and homeless. Protective masks are almost impossible to obtain, and not everyone can sew their own. Families are stuck in houses that once felt cozy and warm but now which feel more like prison cells, simply because they cannot leave or even find a space where they can take a time-out, a bit of peace, or a chance to self-nurture a bit.

So, where is God? God is all around, in nature, in people, in communities and individuals, in rich and poor. Perhaps in these days, we are tasked with stepping up and reaching past our comfort zones, helping those we might not otherwise notice. We are asked to make the first step to help others without looking at how they can repay us for our kindness or sharing. The rich, who have more, should be encouraged to give more since they can do so, while even the poor can practice love toward those who might seem to be the most unloveable souls on earth. 

God is asking us to go beyond the eye-for-an-eye stage and do a sort of “pay it forward” work. Spread some joy in any way possible. Call to check on an elder, ask a neighbor if you can pick up something for them at a store if you’re going there. If you have food or items delivered, give a larger-than-normal tip for the delivery person. Find a way to continue your pledge and, if at all possible, up the amount a bit to help support the ministries of the church, which continue despite virus, isolation, or hard times. Pray for wise government, for first responders, service workers, medical professionals, ministers, the ill, the at-risk, the families of those who have died of this virus, and for ourselves and our families. Look for the good, as God looks for the good in us. 

Be a reflector for God in the world, continue to hope, work for mutual respect among people, and try to stay safe, for yourselves and those around you. Practice love, even toward those who are unloveable. Remember that God loves us regardless, so God wants us to try to emulate that love. 

It isn’t easy, but whoever said that being one of God’s children was going to be easy?  As someone very wise once said, “An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind.”

God bless you on the journey.


Image: Code of Hammurabi, ca. 1750 BCE, from the Louvre Museum. Found at Wikimedia Commons.


Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter.


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