In today’s Gospel the Lord is teaching us, by His grace, to break the cycle of retribution and hatred. When someone harms me, I may well experience anger. And in my anger I may seek to get back at the offender. If I do that, then Satan has earned two victories and brought the anger and retribution to a new level. And most likely, the one who originally harmed me will take exception to my retribution and try to inflict more harm on me. And so the cycle continues and escalates. Satan loves this.
Break the Cycle – The Lord has dispatched us onto the field to turn the game around and break the cycle of retribution and hatred. In effect, the “play” he wants us to execute is the “it ends with me” play.
Don’t Play on Satan’s Team – To hate those who hate me and to get back at those who harm me is to work for Satan, to play on his team. Why do that?
To advance the ball for Jesus is to break the cycle of retribution and hatred by taking the hit and not returning it. By loving our enemy, we break the cycle of hate. By refusing retribution, we rob Satan of a double victory.
Recall the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction….The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation (From Strength to Love, 1963).
Christ, living in us, wants to break the cycle.
The Necessity of Grace – Recall as well a point made in last Sunday’s reflection that these antitheses are pictures of the transformed human person. Jesus is describing here what happens to a person in whom He has begun to live through the Holy Spirit. As such, the verses that follow are a description before they are a prescription. Jesus is not merely saying, “Stop being so thin-skinned, so easily offended, and so retaliatory. Stop hating people.” If that were the case we could easily be discouraged by these commands, or merely write them off as some impossible ideal. No, the Lord is doing something far greater than just giving us rules. He is describing what will happen to us more and more as His grace transforms us.
With this in mind, let’s look at the particulars in three sections.
I. Regarding Retaliation – The first of the antitheses reads:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
Behind this text is the gift from the Lord of a generous heart. Ps 118:32 says, In the ways of your precepts I run O Lord for you have enlarged my heart. It takes a large heart not to retaliate, to go the extra mile, to give alms. The transformed mind and heart that Jesus gives us is like this: it is a large heart, able to endure personal slights and attacks, able to refuse retaliation, and able to let go of personal possessions in pursuit of a higher goal. This is the essential vision of this antithesis.
That said, there are surely many questions that arise out of these sayings of Jesus’. Most of these questions, however, come from seeing the sermon as a legal prescription rather than a descriptive example. Nevertheless, these are important questions.
- What does it mean to offer no resistance to injury?
- Does this mean that there is no place for a criminal justice system?
- Should police forces be banned?
- It there no place for national defense or armed forces?
- Should all punishment be banned?
- Should bad behavior never be rebuked?
- Am I required to let go of anything anyone asks for?
- Do I always have to give away my money to beggars?
- Is it always wise to give someone whatever he asks for?
- Is it wise for me always to agree to help in every task that is asked of me?
To answer some of these questions, we do well to recall that the Lord is speaking to us as individuals. Therefore the state, which has an obligation to protect the innocent from foes within and without, may be required to use force to repel threats. Further, the state has an obligation to secure basic justice and may therefore be required to assign punishment for crimes committed. This has been the most common Catholic understanding of this text.
Pacifists, however, disagree with the traditional approach and see in this antithesis of Jesus’ a prohibition of all restraint of evil through any physical force. This would preclude, for most of them, any use of military force or armed police.
In answer to this, I would point out that Scripture does not condemn military service in any explicit sense, nor does it deny the right of the State to assign punishment. Consider some of the following New Testament references:
- Luke 3:14 – Soldiers also asked him (John the Baptist), “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Note that John does not tell them to leave the military.
- Roman soldiers often interacted with Jesus—New Testament texts often mention them (Mat 8, 27, Mark 15, Luke 7, 23, Acts 10 inter alia ). In no place are they condemned or is their military service called into question by Jesus.
- In John’s gospel Jesus acknowledges Pilate’s authority (even though he exercises it wrongly). Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin” (Jn 19:11).
- Paul acknowledges the power and right of the state to punish criminals even with capital punishment: Rom13:1ff Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
Hence the New Testament seems to accept that the state does have punitive powers for the common good.
But don’t miss the main point of Jesus’. The more likely understanding of this antithesis is that Jesus speaks to us as individuals and testifies that, to the degree that we are transformed, we will not seek to retaliate or avenge personal injuries. Rather, due to our relationship with God the Father we will be content to leave such matters to God. As scripture testifies, Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom 12:19). Further and even more important, to the degree that Jesus lives in us we will simply be less easily offended at all. This is because our sense of our dignity is rooted in him, not in what some mere mortal thinks, says, or does.
Jesus goes on to give four examples of what he means by us becoming less vengeful and retaliatory.
1. When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. Being struck with the back of the hand was in ancient times (and even now) a sign of disrespect. There is an intended humiliation when one strikes us on the cheek. But take note what Jesus does here! In the ancient world one always struck using the left hand. This meant that being struck on one’s right cheek was to be struck with the inside of the hand. But in turning the other cheek one would then be struck with the outside (i.e., back) of the hand of the striker. This was an even worse indignity in the ancient world! But as a Christian in whom Christ is really living, who can really dishonor me? God is the source of my dignity, and no one can take it from me. By this grace I can let it pass since I have not, in fact, been stripped of my dignity. The world did not give me my dignity and the world cannot take it away. From this perspective Jesus is not offering us merely the grace to endure indignity, but the grace not to suffer or experience indignity at all.
2. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. It was forbidden in ancient times to take the tunic of a person in pledge for a loan. Thus Jesus would seem to be using this example as a symbol for our rights. There are some people who are forever standing on their rights. They clutch their privileges and will not let them go even if the common good would require it. They will go to the law rather than suffer any infringement upon their “rights.” The true Christian thinks more of duties than rights, more of responsibilities than privileges. All this “personal honor” stuff is unimportant when Christ lives in us. There are, to be sure, some rights necessary for the completion of our duties or for meeting our basic needs. It is unlikely that Jesus has in mind to forbid this. But as a general rule, Jesus is indicating that we can be freed of obsession over “my rights,” “my dignity,” and also “my stuff.” Increasingly, we can be freed of anger when someone might even think to touch anything that is “mine.” The more we are detached from earthly possessions, the less we get anxious or angry when thesethings are somehow threatened or used without our permission, or when our highly refined and dainty sense of our “rights” are trampled upon.
3. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. It was legal for a Roman solider to press a person into service for one mile to carry things. Here too, some might be bent out of shape over such indignities. Jesus offers us a generous heart that will go the extra mile. Jesus came as the servant of all; He came to serve rather than be served. To the degree that he lives in us, we will willingly serve and not feel slighted that someone might have asked us to do something. Neither will we cop the “why me?” attitude that commonly afflicts the ungenerous soul. The key gift here is a generous heart even when others do not always assign us our work fairly or appreciate our efforts sufficiently. This is of little concern for us since we work for God.
4. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. Here too, many questions arise related to indiscriminate giving. In some cases it may not be a wise thing to give money simply because someone asks. But don’t miss the main point here. The bottom line is that when Jesus lives in us, we will be more generous. We will give cheerfully and assist others gladly. We will not be bent out of shape that someone has asked us for help. We may not always be able to help, but our generous heart will not begrudge the beggar, and we will remain cheerful and treat him or her with respect.
Here then is a description of a transformation of the mind and heart. We will view things differently. We will not be so easily bent out of shape, retaliatory, or vengeful. We will be more patient, more generous, less grasping, and more giving. This is what happens when we live in a transformative relationship with Jesus.
II. Radical Requirement – to Love one’s enemy:
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, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?
Here is the acid test, the hallmark of a true Christian: the love of one’s enemy. Note that the Lord links this to being a true child of God. Why? Because God loves everyone and gives gifts of sun and rain to all. If then we are a “chip off the old block,” we will do the same. Anybody can love those who love him or her. But a Christian is called to fulfill the Law and exceed it.
If Christ lives in us then we will love even our enemy. Recall that Jesus loved us even when we hated Him and killed Him. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). And further, While we were his enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son (Rom 5:10).
We should be careful not to make love an abstraction. The Lord is talking about a real transformation of our hearts here. Sometimes we say dopey things like, “You don’t have to like everyone but you have to love them.” This turns love into something of an abstraction. God doesn’t just love me, he even likes me. The Lord is talking about a deep love that wills good things for the enemy. And more than willing good things, even works toward them.
We are called to have compassion, understanding, and even affection for those who hate us and will us evil. We may wonder how this can happen in us. How can we have affection for those who hate us? Yet it can be so when Christ lives His life in us. We will good and do good to them who hate us, just as Jesus did.
It is also important not to sentimentalize this love. Jesus loved his enemies (us) but did not coddle us. He spoke the truth to the Scribes and Pharisees of his day, often forcefully and uncompromisingly. We are called to a strong love, one which wants the truth for everyone. Yet this testimony is also given with understanding and true (not false or fake) compassion.
III. Remarkable Recapitulation – Finally the Lord says,
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Here is the fundamental summary, the recapitulation: God-like perfection! Nothing less will do. How could there be anything less when Christ lives His life in us? To the degree that He lives in us and the old Adam dies, we become perfect. This is the state of the Saints in Heaven: they have been made perfect. Christ’s work in them is complete. The Greek word here is τέλειός (Teleios) which means complete or perfect. Thus, the emphasis here is on the completion of a work in us more so than mere excellence in performance. Hence Paul writes to the Philippians, And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil 1:6)
This sentence also serves as an open-ended conclusion to the antitheses. It’s almost as if Jesus says, “These have only been a few examples I have given you. The point is to be perfect, complete in every way, totally transformed in your mind, heart, and behavior.”
And thus we return to the original theme: it ends with me. In these final two antitheses the Lord wants to break the cycle of anger, retribution, and violence. He wants the downward spiral of hatred and vengeance to end with me. When, on account of his grace, I do not retaliate, I break the cycle. When I do not escalate the bitterness or return the spite, when I refuse to allow hate to take possession of me, the cycle ends with me. Only God can do this for me.
But He does do it. I promise you in the Lord Jesus Christ that the Lord can deliver us from anger, wrath, vengefulness, pettiness, and the like. I promise you because He is doing it in me. I do not boast; I am only saying what the Lord has done. For the most part, I have been delivered from my anger, something that was once a major struggle for me. It is not any longer. I did not deliver myself—Jesus did. The promise of the Lord here is true. Only God can do it. He has said it and he will do it—if we let him.
This song says, “I Look to you. After all my strength is gone, in you I can be strong. I look to you!”