Year A – 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Hatfields and McCoys

(Lev.19:1-2, 17-18; 1Cor.3:16-23; Mt.5:38-48)

Hurt people sometimes hurt people, don’t they? We see it so often in the movies, but also in the news, at work and school, and in our families. Some hurt people respond to their pain by hurting others, and sometimes it’s for revenge.

I once heard someone try to justify revenge by quoting an ‘eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ from today’s Gospel. But he was wrong. He misunderstood what Jesus is saying. Let me explain.

In the Louvre, in Paris, there’s a shiny block of black stone. It’s ancient, 2 metres tall and weighs over a tonne. It was found in Iran in 1901 and it’s known as the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi was king of Babylon about 4,000 years ago, and his code has 282 laws.

One of these laws says, ‘if a man puts out the eye of an equal, his eye shall be put out. If a man knocks out the teeth of another man, his own teeth will be knocked out.’

This law wasn’t meant to encourage revenge. Its purpose was to make sure that people don’t overreact when they’re wronged. So, if someone breaks your tooth, you can’t retaliate by breaking all his teeth. The punishment should fit the crime.

Centuries later, this principle of an ‘eye for an eye’ found its way into the Bible (Ex.21:24; Lev.24:20; Deut.19:21). But its purpose isn’t to encourage revenge, because Moses agreed with Hammurabi. He believed that any response to an offence should be measured and appropriate. This principle still applies in our criminal law today.

So far, this law sounds sensible. But in another way it’s not sensible at all. 

In 1963, Martin Luther King said that this philosophy of an eye for an eye will leave everyone blind.[i]  What he meant is that if everyone believed in the tit-for-tat approach to justice, then the retaliation, and the pain, would never end.

Have you heard of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys? These two families lived on opposite sides of a river flowing between West Virginia and Kentucky. No-one’s sure how this feud started, but these families hated each other. 

In 1878 Randolph McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing one of his pigs.  He took him to court, but lost. 

Soon afterwards, McCoy’s sons killed one of Hatfield’s boys and then things steadily got worse. Between 1880 and 1891, at least 12 people were killed and 10 were wounded. 

The feud lasted for many decades, and the last confrontation was in 2000. In 2003 the two families signed a formal truce, and now, every 14 June, the states of Kentucky and West Virginia celebrate ‘Hatfield-McCoy Reconciliation Day’.[ii]

What would Jesus say about this? He’d say this war should never have started. 

In Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus warns his disciples not to retaliate when someone hurts them. He’s not telling us to accept abuse, but he is saying that any response should be non-violent.

Jesus is also saying that it’s important to break the cycle of violence, and to always seek peace. He then gives us examples of what to do. If someone strikes you, he says, don’t strike back. If someone takes you to court over your tunic, then give them your cloak as well. And if someone demands a service of you, don’t resist.

Each of these responses is bold, but non-violent. It robs the aggressive person of their power, and it can break the cycle of revenge. It can also help the victim gain control over the situation.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘I object to violence because when it appears to do good, that good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.’

And in 1957, Martin Luther King said, ‘Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.’ [iii]

That’s what Jesus is trying to teach us. That’s why he says we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt.5:44). 

And that’s why Jesus prayed for those who nailed him to the Cross, saying ‘Forgive them Father, for they don’t know what they’re doing’ (Lk.23:34).

Yes, hurt people do sometimes hurt people. Payback is a temptation, but we know it’s wrong.  None of us needs more pain.  We all need healing and peace, and the only real way to achieve that is through love.  

How do you respond when someone hurts you?