In the Ancient Near East, one of the most basic principles of law was “an eye for an eye,” called the law of reciprocity. We find it in both the Babylonian King Hammurabi’s Law Code (ca. 1780 BCE) and in the Old Testament Mosaic Law (Lev. 24:19-21, Deu. 19:16-21). The purpose was to limit vengeance, not encourage it. If your neighbor poked out your eye, you could poke out one of his eyes, not both. If a person committed murder, the perpetrator alone should be put to death, not his family.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us a new rule: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”(Mat. 5:38-39). This is one of the most famous sayings of Jesus and yet one of the least followed. It goes against human nature, legal tradition, and even common sense.
Nobody likes being picked on. Everybody wants a bully to get his comeuppance. Like Plato, however, Jesus taught it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong, even if you’re in the right.
The world would be a much nicer place if all people lived by Jesus’ maxim, but they don’t. So why should I? It’s like nuclear disarmament. The world would be a safer place if we got rid of all nuclear weapons; however, the governments that have them don’t want to disarm unilaterally. It’s too risky.
Instead of the Golden Rule we prefer the opposite: “Do unto others what they do unto you.” An eye for an eye. That’s a lot easier and more practical. You don’t have to become a pacifist or oppose the death penalty or allow people to take advantage of you.
Jesus gave us a seemingly impossible standard for morality. You’d have to be perfect to live the way he taught us in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, in the same passage he said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Mat. 5:48). Jesus’ teachings sound like unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky ideals for a utopian society, not the real world we live in.
We couldn’t possibly live the way Jesus taught us to, could we?