“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” The lex talionis, as this Old Testament law is called, is supposedly the oldest recorded or known principle in the world. While this may seem like a tit-for-tat law, bordering on the vengeful, it is important to go back to its roots—the context in which it was formulated and the value it wanted to uphold.
Contrary to common perception, it was actually intended to moderate violence and prevent an all-out exacting of revenge. In a manner of speaking, it made the response commensurate to the act that one is responding to. If you were attacked with a punch, do not kick the other; if you were slightly wounded, do not deliver a mortal blow.
More than a personal or individual law, the lex talionis was meant to be a guiding principle for a judge in rendering a just sentence to an offender.
Before being ordained as a priest who would hear confessions, we were told to make the penance meaningful, commensurate to the offense and, most important, one that will help the person learn positive values that will overcome the sin or offense.
The lex talionis was actually the starting point of being merciful and forgiving. Look at the succeeding prescriptions or laws in this Sunday’s Gospel: If someone hits you on the right cheek, offer the left; if someone grabs your tunic, offer your cloak as well; if you are pressed to accompany someone for a mile, go the extra mile. It is going beyond what is asked or required of you.
Of course, many of us would admit that the hardest thing to do is to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
In one retreat held over five years ago, somebody told a story of betrayal, anger, pain, healing and forgiveness. (I had asked her permission two days ago if I could share it in today’s reflection and she coyly agreed, so long she is not identified.)
In 1985 she came back from her master’s studies aboard. She was already quite known as a young, upcoming star. Upon her return she was immediately offered a major position in the company she worked for.
But her bosses felt threatened and started to clip her wings. Even then, she could not be fired because the company’s clients loved her and were all praises for her. She focused on her work.
After doing her best to help the company she loved, it was time for her to move on. She resigned and immediately got another job. She said she was doing better and enjoying herself.
One day, one of her colleagues from her former office told her that she was being made the scapegoat of a group whose projects had failed miserably.
She kept her peace. But soon she felt she had to say her piece and did so quietly and objectively. She wrote a seven-page letter recounting all the details of the said project and effectively exposing the lies and deception of the other group.
The head of the company sent her a text message, thanking her for shedding light on the issues. The boss even told her that he would issue a formal acknowledgment and address the points she had raised.
The letter never came. She said it was fine because she already felt liberated to be given the chance to tell the truth. But she admitted breaking down in tears, hurt by the betrayal of people she had helped to advance in their careers.
Then she launched her own major project quite similar to the one that failed eight years earlier which her colleagues tried to pin on her.
At the inauguration of her project, she said the following lines in her speech, parts of which I quote with her permission:
“It has been a long and winding route to this day. We first discussed this project years ago. The actual work on it started four years ago. . . The challenges were frustrating and almost led us to despair and give up. Yet God had his plan. Today, all I can say, together with my team is, ‘thank you!’”
She said that at that point she felt a warm flow of energy throughout her body. She knew she had healed and forgiven all who had wronged and betrayed her.
I posed this question to her: From the time you realized you had forgiven your foes, has there been any difference in your life?
It took her some time to reply.
Then she said, “The memory of the betrayal is still there. But forgiving and choosing to look at God’s blessings and being grateful keep me grounded. I am able to move on in a positive way.”
That’s the lex talionis at work—choosing to look at all things from the eyes of mercy.
Forgiveness is probably a choice—an option to look at all things as a channel of God’s blessings. I cannot help but hear in my heart the words of a song referred to in a previous article:
“What if Your blessings come through rain drops? What if Your healing comes through tears? What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near? What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?”