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From unlimited revenge 
to unconditional love

by Reverend Howard Ray Carey

Can you imagine a society where multiple murders, committed in return for smaller offenses, would be socially accepted? And with no indication of divine disapproval? Of course we read frequently in our newspapers about murders being committed ---- sometimes even for imagined offenses. But this is in violation of established law, and meets with strong disapproval by society. So, even with all of our frightening excesses of crime today, it appears that we have journeyed far from the kind of primitive society pictured in the fourth chapter of Genesis.

For there, we read how a man named Lamech (the sixth generation from Adam) is boasting to his wives, ''Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, hearken to what I say: I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven-fold. '' (Gen. 4:23-4) There we have unlimited revenge spelled out in bold words ---- with no shred of evidence of any kind of disapproval, human or divine, for such brutal action.

And what of the reference to Cain being avenged sevenfold? Go back a bit further in that same chapter and we find spelled out God's decree of punishment for the murder of his brother Abel, ''Now you are cursed from the ground... When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth.'' But Cain complains to the Lord, ''My punishment is greater than I can bear... And whoever finds me will slay me.'' Then the Lord is pictured as saying, ''Not so. If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.''

So here we find Deity itself decreeing sevenfold revenge! What a picture. Of course we may choose not to take all this literally. But the point is that it paints a sharp picture of a society so wild and primitive that no restraint is placed on unlimited violence committed in revenge for other wrongs. And if there is divine disapproval, we do not find it so indicated.

These observations shed new light, do they not, on the Mosaic decree of a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye, ''If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, stripe for stripe.'' (Ex. 21:23-4) Looked at from our modern Western viewpoint, this Mosaic law may seem harsh indeed. But viewed in the light of the far less developed civilization in which it was issued, such a decree can be seen to mark a decisive step forward. A step ahead from the previous primitive standard of allowing unlimited revenge, to a then-enlightened standard of permitting no more damage in retaliation than was inflicted on the victim by his aggressor.

It might be of interest to note that this law of life for life ---- eye for eye, and tooth for tooth ---- is reiterated both in Leviticus and in Deuteronomy. And in Leviticus it is further stated that ''You shall have one law for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.'' (Lev. 24:22) This safeguard, according to which foreigners are to have the same protection under the law as natives, represents a standard which some nations today have not yet achieved.

If we study later Old Testament writings we find numerous modifications of the Mosaic standard in the direction of more considerate treatment of offenders. In previous chapters I have quoted the writer of Proverbs as recommending: ''If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat. And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.'' (Prov. 25:21) It has also been noted that the prophet Elisha brought an end to guerilla warfare by inducing the king of Israel to feed a captured army and send it home unharmed. There is no doubt that sufficient research would reveal other modifications of the 'eye for eye' law in later Old Testament scriptures.

But we turn to the New Testament to find a real reversal from seeking retaliation for wrongs done, to the practice of loving one's enemies. In chapters five to seven of the gospel according to Matthew, we find that marvelous collection of Jesus' teachings on crucially important issues. Doubtless these were given on many different occasions, but for our convenience they are brought together in this condensed form as His most important teachings for disciples. We call these the Sermon on the Mount.

Many of these teachings represent a direct reversal from retaliation to love and forgiveness. The Christian Church has called this a change of dispensation ---- from the old dispensation of law to the new one of grace. Actually, what we find here is a radical change: from the law of revenge to the law of love and goodwill. Thus in Matthew 5:38-9 and 43-5 we find these crucial words of Jesus, ''You have heard that it was said, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, 'Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also...' You have heard that it was said: 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you: 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' So that you may be the sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.''

Thus it becomes clear that as disciples of Christ, whatever religious label we wear, we are no longer to think in terms of 'getting even' for wrongs done to us. Rather we are to make the creative response of love. (Could this be called a revolutionary form of retaliation?) This idea of returning love for hate is found in many parts of the New Testament. In his letter to the Romans, Paul suggests ways in which this can affect the erstwhile enemy:''If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.'' (Rom. 12:20-21)

This symbolism of the burning coals is Paul's way of indicating what a profound effect this kind of response may have on other persons. In any case, it will have a profound effect upon us ---- as we practice responding to harsh treatment in this way of creative love and forgiveness.  

That our love is to be unconditional ---- that is, not demanding anything in return ---- is clearly indicated in the words of Jesus to His chosen 12 disciples just before His crucifixion:  ''If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things have I spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.'' (John 15:10-13).

A corollary of unconditional love is unlimited forgiveness. This is demonstrated in Jesus' words to Peter when that disciple inquired whether he should forgive as many as seven times: ''Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you seven times but seventy times seven.''' (Matt. 18:22)

Let us not miss the fine point that this is the exact reversal of Lamech's seventy times seven-fold revenge noted above. Let it also be noted that these revolutionary teachings of unconditional love and forgiveness are pronouncements given not to the general public, but to followers of Jesus, and mainly to those who had reached the level of discipleship. The rank and file of humanity was so far removed from this high level that such teachings likely would have bounced off them rather than being acted upon, or even understood. But on the encouraging side, let us realize that the number of disciples and initiates throughout the world has greatly increased during the 2,000 years since Jesus' time.

Christ's teachings on love and sharing, given recently through Benjamin Creme, clearly indicate that all of us who are on the path of discipleship (and even those who are aspirants to discipleship) are being challenged to fully embrace these high principles of unconditional love and forgiveness. By doing this we may have a profound effect on others, helping to prepare them to move in this direction. For these are the principles on which the new civilization of the Aquarian Age is to be built.

That the Christ is looking to us to serve on this high level is indicated throughout His recent Messages. Note His words in Message No. 85:  ''My friends, I depend on you to execute My Plan, and thus prepare the new World... Wherever I look today around the world, I see the shining points of Light of My people, those on whom I rely.  These beacons of Light shall bring all men to Me, and thus the Plan will unfold.  May it be that you will gather yourselves around Me in this way, that My Light may kindle your flame; and so together we can transform this world.''

Look how, in Message No. 116,  He calls on our assistance in creating a reservoir of love for all men:  ''Help Me, My friends, to create a pool of Love so deep that all men may quench their thirst.''

Let us exult in His promise, given in Message No. 80:  ''I shall take you to that Blessed Country which I call Love. I shall show you God dwelling therein, and evoke from you that Divinity... Hold fast, My friends, My brothers, to your love. Manifest that love and follow Me.''

What a journey ---- from Lamech's practice of unrestricted revenge to the place where we, as His followers, can march under Christ's banner of Love Unlimited.  Giving our best to live by this basic law, we can help others to move in this revolutionary direction. What a program! What a challenge! What an honor! Let our hearts sing and rejoice.

This article is a chapter from The Joy of Christ's Coming This book by the late Rev. Howard Ray Carey was published by Share International Foundation in 1988. It is not currently available in hard copy form. Copyright © Share International Foundation.  Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard version unless otherwise indicated. 

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005