In today’s Gospel the Lord is teaching us, by His grace, to break the cycle of hatred and retribution. When someone harms me I may well become angry, and in my anger seek to get back at the offender. If I do that, though, then Satan has earned a second victory and brought the anger and retribution to a higher level. Most likely, the one who originally harmed me will then 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 this cycle of retribution and hatred. 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, 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, Jr.:
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 the antitheses contained in chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew 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. The verses are a description more so than a prescription. Jesus is not merely telling us to stop being so thin-skinned, easily offended, and retaliatory. He’s not just telling us to stop hating people. If that were the case, it would be easy for us to get discouraged or to write them off as some impossible ideal. No, the Lord is doing something far greater than just giving us a set of 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 as follows:
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. Psalm 118 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 big heart, able to endure personal slights and attacks, refuse retaliation, and let go of personal possessions in pursuit of a higher goal.
That said, there are surely many questions that arise out of these sayings of Jesus’. Most of them, however, come from seeing Jesus’ words as a legalistic prescription rather than as a descriptive example. Nevertheless, they are important questions.
What does it mean to offer no resistance to injury?
Does it 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 relinquish anything anyone asks me for?
Must I always give money to beggars?
Is it always wise to give someone whatever he asks for?
Should I agree to accept 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. The state, which has an obligation to protect the innocent from enemies within and without, may be required to use force to repel threats. Further, it has an obligation to secure basic justice and may therefore be required to impose punishment on those who commit crimes. This has been the most common Catholic understanding of this passage. The New Testament seems to accept that the state does have punitive powers, to be used for the common good.
But don’t miss Jesus’ main point, which is directed to us as individuals. He 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 be less easily offended. 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.
When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. In ancient times, striking someone in this manner was a sign of disrespect, just as it would be today. There is an intended humiliation when someone strikes another on the cheek. By turning the other cheek, one would then be struck with the back side of the striker’s hand. This was an even greater 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; no one can take it from me. By this grace, I can let any slight pass, because I have not 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.
If anyone wants to go to the law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. In ancient times, it was forbidden to take someone’s tunic in pledge for a loan. Thus Jesus would seem to be using this example as a symbol of our rights. There are some people who are forever demanding and clinging to 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 in terms of duties than rights, more of responsibilities than privileges. All this
“personal honor” stuff is unimportant when Christ lives in us. To be sure, there are 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 our “rights,” “dignity,” and also our personal possessions. Increasingly, we can be freed of the anger that can arise when someone might even think of touching anything that is “ours.” The more we are detached from earthly possessions, the less we get anxious or angry when these things are somehow threatened or used without our permission, or when our precious “rights” are trampled upon.
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. 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 to be served. To the degree that He lives in us, we will willingly serve and not feel slighted when someone asks 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 in situations in which others do not assign work to us fairly or appreciate our efforts sufficiently. This is of little concern for us, because we work for God.
Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. Many questions arise related to indiscriminate giving. In some cases, it may not be wise thing to give money simply because someone asks. But don’t miss the main point here: when Jesus lives in us, we will be more generous. We will give cheerfully and assist others gladly. We will not get bent out of shape when someone asks us for help. We may not always be able to help, but our generous heart will not begrudge the beggar; 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 – Love your 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?
This is the acid test, the hallmark of a true Christian: 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 we are a “chip off the old block,” we will do the same. It’s easy to love those who love us, 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. Jesus said, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). Elsewhere in Scripture is written, 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. Sometimes we say silly things like this: 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 our enemy and 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? 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 but did not coddle them. 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, but we must give this testimony with understanding and true (not fake or false) 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 used here is τέλειός (teleios) which means complete or perfect. Thus, the emphasis is on the completion of a work in us more so than mere excellence in performance. 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 today’s Gospel. It’s almost as if Jesus says, “I’ve only given you a few examples here. 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 He can deliver us from anger, wrath, vengefulness, and pettiness. I can promise you because He is doing it in me. I do not boast; I am only telling you 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!”