Jesus said to his disciples: “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 your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. “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? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I ran across this old chestnut the other day and thought that I’d share it with you. A father was leaving on a business trip and he pulled his 11-year-old son to the side to have a word with him. “While I’m gone,” he said, “you’re going to be the man of the house. What I’d like you to do is to think about what I’d do and then do that.”
When he came back he asked his wife how things had gone. She shook her head and said, “Well, it was really strange. Right after breakfast he poured himself a cup of coffee, went into the living room, turned on the television, cranked up Fox News really loud and read the paper for half an hour.”
I think that’s both funny and unsettling. Our kids do watch what we do; even, and perhaps especially, those things that we don’t particularly want them to see, let alone imitate. But there are some things that need copying. And that’s the point of today’s lesson from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is telling his disciples—and that would include us—that they/we are to fulfill God’s holy will for Israel by emulating the Father. Let’s develop this.
Israel is the chosen nation. And yet the Israelites, the Jews, are also taught that God does not have favorites. It’s a bit of a mystery. If they are the chosen ones, doesn’t that mean that they are God’s favorites?
The answer is found earlier in the Sermon on the Mount. Israel isn’t chosen in order to be God’s special people while the rest of the world remains in outer darkness. Israel is chosen to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. Israel is chosen, so that through them, God will bless all people.
And Jesus is proclaiming that now is the time for Israel to be the light of the world. It must not,it cannot, be put off. Jesus is opening the way, carving the road through the wilderness if you will, towards that particular vocation. He is calling God’s people to come with him on this perilous journey to be Christ’s disciples. And perilous it is. Israel has many enemies. Pagan nations have overrun the land and subjected the people to harsh new laws and oppressive taxes. And there are violent factions within; movements of national resistance have sprung up fuelled by outrage at the Roman occupation in particular. They were not unlike ISIS or the Al-Qaeda today in Islam. They had the desire to purge Israel of her perceived unfaithfulness, which was blamed for the success of the pagan invaders. Why else would God allow this happen?
Added to this was the economic divisions that caused some, mostly supporters of the Romans, to become very, very rich and the general populace was becoming more and more impoverished. The place was a powder keg.
This was the environment into which Jesus came. He was restoring God’s people and showing the way of true faithfulness. The pressing issues of the people listening to Jesus were channeled into this one topic and each one was challenged to ask “how does all this apply to me?” It’s the same for us today; each of us is to ask the same question: “how does all this apply to me?”
Well, Jesus offered the people of Israel then, and us today his disciples, a new understanding of justice. It’s a creative, cleansing, healing, restorative justice. The old Justice found in the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, was designed to prevent revenge from running rampant. Better an ‘eye for an eye’ and a ‘tooth for a tooth’ than an escalating feud with each side ratcheting up the conflict until wholesale slaughter became the rule of the day.
No, Jesus says “I’m giving you a new understanding of justice. I’m offering a better way.” Instead of limiting retaliation to an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” it is better to have no retaliation at all. Rather there must be a creative way forward, a way that reflects the astonishingly patient love of God the Father. Jesus is telling us that this is what God wants us to copy. God wants his people to shine his light into the world so that all people can see that He is the one true God, and that his deepest nature is overflowing love.
Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright offers some insight into what Christ meant. (N.T. Wright Matthew for Everyone pp.51-53)
First Wright suggests that to be struck on the right cheek, at that time and place, would almost certainly mean that one was being hit by the back of the right hand. That’s not just violence, that’s an insult. It implies that you’re an inferior, perhaps a slave or a child or in that day and age, and all too often today, a woman. What’s the answer? Hitting back only keeps the evil in circulation. Offering the other cheek implies “Okay, hit me again if you like, but now as an equal, not as an inferior.” There will be no more condescension. All people are to be viewed as equals.
Wright then proposes that you envision yourself in a court of law where a powerful enemy is suing you, perhaps for non-payment of some huge debt, and she’s angry and wants the shirt off your back. You can’t win but you can show her what she’s really doing. The illustration that Jesus uses is of someone taking your tunic and then you are to give your cloak as well. You see, in a world where most people only wore the two garments, tunic and cloak, you would be left in a state of impoverished nakedness. The goal would be to show the person the consequences of her action so that she might repent. Unfortunately this is frequently what the rich and powerful did then and are doing today; all too often they reduce the impoverished to a state of humiliation, embarrassment and shame. God’s pretty clear; if any of us do that, there are consequences for our immortal souls.
And Wright’s third example clearly reflects the Roman occupation. Roman soldiers had the right to force civilians to carry their equipment for one mile. But the law was quite strict, it was forbidden to make someone go farther than that.
Turn the tables on them, advises Jesus. Don’t fret and fume and plot revenge. Copy your generous heavenly Father. Go a second mile, and astonish the soldier (and perhaps even alarm him “What if his commanding officer found out?”) By so doing, you are showing that there is a different way for humans to relate with one another, a way that has no place for revenge or retaliation, one that reflects Jesus’ admonition for us to offer no resistance to one who is evil. It’s the way that shows God’s path to victory over violence and injustice.
These three are examples of God’s people bringing His light to the world. I think N.T. Wright might be on to something.
Moving on, whatever situation in which we find ourselves, we need to prayerfully think it through, asking what it would mean to reflect God’s generous love despite pressure and provocation and in spite of our own anger and perhaps paranoia and certainly frustration.
We must always keep in mind that these admonitions from Jesus are not “pie in the sky” suggestions, they are instructions because they are key to the Gospel, the Good News. We can look to the example of our Lord. When they mocked him, he did not respond. When they challenged him, he came back with quizzical, often humorous stories that forced his challengers to think differently.
When they struck him, he took the pain. When they put the cross on his back he staggered with it out of the city to the place of his execution. When they spiked him to that cross, he prayed for them.
Our Lord’s instructions, especially in the Sermon on the Mount might be viewed by many as a fine bit of idealism. And we always have some kind of rebuttal, keeping in mind the cares and even dangers in the world. But all this is about Jesus himself who copied the Father in all His ways. He asks nothing of his followers that he hasn’t faced himself. This is the way that God the Father shows what He is really like. It isn’t just how we are to behave, it’s about discerning the living God in the loving and dying of Jesus, and learning to reflect that love into the world that needs it so badly.
In closing, when Jesus says, So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he is saying that we will be completely like the father one day. If we don’t get it accomplished here on earth, it will happen in Purgatory, for Jesus is describing what it means to be holy, and holiness is a prerequisite for entry into heaven. Do it now or do it then when it will be a whole lot tougher. If you claim the title Christian, it is going to happen.