Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time February 19, 2017
Leviticus 19, 1-2, 17-18 + Psalm 103 – 1 Corinthians 3, 16-23 + Matthew 5, 38-48
St William Churches in Naples, FL
The examples Jesus uses today can preach this Gospel if we understand them correctly from the time and the culture in which they were spoken. If we fail to do that, we end up with some rather odd behavior that will not get make us holy or get us close to perfection. When it says “offer no resistance to injury” Jesus is not saying lay down and let anyone hurt you or take advantage of you. Jesus was never passive in the face of evil or wrong-doing. A better translation says: “Do not react with hostility to one who is evil.” That is an entirely different thing from not resisting evil. So, the challenge is how to resist evil, and then comes some examples.
Striking someone on the right cheek does not mean being hit with a fist or a club. The detail of the right cheek speaks to a specific kind of behavior. It refers to a backhanded slap with the right hand which is intended to demean not physically injure. This is a put down or a power play. So, getting into a fist fight misses the point. Rather than hit, the turning of the other cheek changes the game, and it says, “Hit me with integrity and then we’ll see who is best man here.” The people who heard this example from Jesus would have been quite surprised imagining a browbeaten servant standing up like that to an arrogant overlord. The point is made by the response. A servant doesn’t take the insult, but the servant does not escalate this into violence. They simply show up or reveal the arrogance of the offender.
It’s the same thing with the extra mile. A Roman soldier could force a local to carry his pack for only one mile. No more. The offer to go a second mile robbed the bully of the initiative, and it put him in danger of being reported for going beyond the limit. Imagine the people around Jesus hearing this and laughing at the thought of a Roman soldier pleading to get his pack back from a clever pacifist rebel.
With that, Jesus turns our thoughts to hatred, a dangerous thing. It must be kept for a cause not a person. We can hate things or events like war or plagues, but not people. When Jesus talks about the enemy he is not referring to enemies in war. He is talking about someone who is close to us, in the neighborhood, at work, in the family; someone making life difficult for us. Our enemies are not those who hate us but rather those whom we hate. Hate poisons the heart, but love purifies it. When Jesus says that we must love our enemies, it is not for the sake of the enemies. It is for our own sake because love is more beautiful than hate. Love is the greatest gift, but hatred is the one thing that can destroy love.
Love your enemies is one of the most revolutionary things ever said. All other revolutionaries said that the enemy must be destroyed, and we can see where that has taken us into an endless cycle of destruction and hatred that most of the time does more harm to us. Most of us find it hard enough to love our friends, and all of us have some enemies, or at least people we dislike, and when we take the time to reflect upon why we dislike them most of the time it is not because they said or did something to offend, but because they bring out the worst in us. Enemies expose a side of us which we usually manage to keep hidden from our friends, a dark side of our nature which we would rather not know about. The enemy stirs up ugly things inside us, and that’s the real reason we feel hatred.
What is expected of us is not to “feel” love for an enemy, because love is not a feeling. It is an act of the will. We can make a decision to love someone even though we do not have feelings for that person. Love allows someone to be different, to be themselves, and not try to turn them into a copy of ourselves so that we can love them – which is a very distorted kind of fake love. In the end, what Jesus asks is contrary to human nature, but it is not contrary to the divine nature, and so this is what draws us near to perfection. The perfection Jesus speaks of is the perfection of love. God loves God’s children unconditionally not because they are good, but because God is good. And so, it would be for us who seek to perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. We love others not because they are good, but because we will and we choose to be good.