We hear the stories over and again on the news. Gang fights – one gang member gets killed, so the gang feels obliged to avenge his/her death by taking out someone from the opposing gang, and the story goes on. Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story and many other pieces of literature are based on a human tradition that goes back to the earliest tribes.
Vengeance is not pretty.That is why God gave the Israelites towns of refuge – a place where someone could be safe from retribution if they had unintentionally killed someone, until the processes of justice could clarify the situation. Until their establishment, the altar was used in the same way, as a place of refuge. It is referred to in Exodus 21:12-17, where God was instituting a high value on human life, especially for the older or more vulnerable (e.g. parents, and those weak or unprotected who might be kidnapped).
But this provision was not enough. This new nation needed strong laws to protect its members and build a cohesive society. For those who had done such terrible things deliberately, there was only one recourse – being put to death.
The laws Jesus brought in did not make it any easier. He said being angry with a brother was subject to the same punishment as murder; and being disrespectful of them required the same judgement (Matthew 5:21-22). Would there be anyone left alive??? Jesus knew it was an impossible law to keep, but without real love for one another – thinking right, not just doing right – his new Kingdom could not hold together.
There was only one recourse – being put to death. But with a big difference. Jesus was willing to be the one put to death, to pay the price for our shortfalls. When we are hurtful to one another; when we are disrespectful; when we are angry or think unlovingly about a brother or sister in Christ, it is Jesus who takes the punishment for it.
I am so glad that he died to pay the price for my sins, my place of refuge for wrongdoing, intentional or not. But this passage reminds me just how important he considers it, that we truly, from the heart, love one another. His Kingdom on earth hangs together on it. And the extension of his Kingdom depends on it. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
So next time someone in church winds me up, or irritates me, or I snap back, I need to remember what that cost Jesus.