The gospel reading for today is Jesus’ teaching on the familiar passage “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23-24). People often use this passage from Exodus to justify punishment, especially the death penalty. John J. McDermoot in “Weekday Homily Helps” (St. Anthony Messenger Press) for June 14, 2010 says that the passage was not meant to justify revenge. Instead, he says that it was meant to put limits on revenge done out of anger.
We are human. We have emotions. When someone wrongs us in some way we can become angry. It can seem so natural but we must keep our anger in check. When people act out of revenge they might wish to do a greater violence than was done to them. Thus, an eye for an eye is meant to limit revenge.
Jesus takes it one step farther. He tells us to turn the other check; a tall order when we know we have been wronged.
So when a person commits a crime, what are we supposed to do? Do we turn the other cheek? Anger should never be what controls our actions but we should work to ensure justice is done. If a person has committed a crime, they should be punished but the goal is not punishment itself. The goal of the punishment should always be to help the person to see the “error of their ways” and to change their behavior for the better.
So we have two ways of looking at punishment; justice and revenge.
Revenge is guided by anger and anger stands in the way of love. Anger is this way is one of the seven deadly sins. Justice can be done as an act of love but not just love towards the victim but also toward the criminal; showing concern for them as one of God’s children.
There is also an element of protection to both revenge and justice. We need to protect people in general from crime and violence. Thus, when the crime warrants it, the criminal is placed in prison to make sure they cannot continue to commit act of violence.
When looking at this as punishment and protection, justice and revenge may not seem all that different. On the outside, they may not be. On the inside the difference is important; the difference between love and anger. Love brings us closer to God, anger divides us.
When we, or someone we love, are the victim of a crime love can seem difficult. Forgiveness can seem impossible. So we turn justice over to God’s will.