Leviticus 19, 1-2 17-18 + Psalm 103 + 1 Corinthians 3, 16-23 + Matthew 5, 38-48
23 February 2020 at St. Peter & St. William Churches in Naples, FL
Retaliation is this world’s response to almost everything. We see it from playgrounds to Congress. It has left us paralyzed in every effort to seek justice, to care for the poor and oppressed, to protect human life, and discern the common good. In fact, too often these days, “the common good” has been reduced to my win and your loss. Too often the old “eye for an eye” is used as an excuse for finding a better way that brings a stop to offense. Those who rely on that excuse don’t seem to get it. That Old Testament response was a way of establishing some limit making the response proportionate to the offence. It simply meant that is someone put out one of your eyes, you could not take both of theirs. It was way of stopping excessive revenge in a pay-back kind of world. Jesus will have nothing of this, and he proposes for his followers a very radical reinterpretation of the Old Testament rule. He uses some interesting and slightly humorous examples to illustrate his proposition.
Think about this. How do you use your right hand to strike someone else on the right cheek? You would have to turn your hand over or stand upside down. The only other way is a backhanded slap, which in almost every society is more of an insult than a physical assault. It’s silly. If someone is taken to court and ordered to surrender their outer garment, the example suggests that the debtor should offer the inner garment as well, which means they would be standing naked in the court. This is more than silly, it is absurd! In the final example, a disciple should offer to carry a Roman soldier’s heavy pack for more than what was required. In fact, it was a Roman law that a soldier could not require someone to carry their pack more than a mile. Going further was an offence for the soldier. Offering to go further is absolute foolishness. You don’t have to, and puts the oppressing solder at risk. To put all of this another way: turn the other cheek to a bully; give all you have to those who don’t need it; or pay a traffic ticket when you only get a warning. This is what Jesus proposes to us who are his disciples. Remember that just last week, the Gospel insisted that just doing the minimum, just keeping the rule was not enough for disciples. The Scribes and Pharisees do that, and we have to go further.
Retaliation and revenge have no place in the heart and the lives of true disciples of Jesus Christ. There is no rationalizing or getting around what Jesus expects of us. To make it even harder, he concludes this instruction by presenting the alternative to revenge and retaliation: love. He’s not talking about romantic affection here. He’s talking about respect and something we call, benevolence, which means wishing for goodness. When we take our offenders or our enemies to prayer, we are becoming more perfect which is to say, more God-like and more holy. Reconciliation is a lot more god-like than retaliation. It simply gets down to the fact that God prefers reconciliation to retaliation all the time.
It seems to me there are two ways to take away something of what is revealed here. One is challenge and the other is comfort. The challenge is the revelation of God’s will, that we be holy and perfect. It requires a conviction that reconciliation is the only way to peace and that retaliation and revenge can only drive us further away from each other which cannot be the will of God. The other revelation here has to do directly with God and God’s relationship toward us. The comfort is that God does not use retaliation and revenge. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is God who does not punish those who do wrong, even those who betray and murder his only son. So, we walk away today with a challenge and with hope: a challenge to put retaliation and revenge out of bounds. This is not an option for us. There is a better way, a more perfect way, a more holy way, and it is the way of God. We leave here with hope that God is not waiting to punish us. God does not resent our failures and sin. God uses the power of love and respect to transform our lives when God’s will is revealed and sought seriously by his disciples.
Perhaps, as we approach this altar today, it is time to address and settle the disputes in our lives that have led to resentment and a desire for retaliation or revenge. We cannot lead a holy life with any of this in our hearts. It is totally incompatible with the presence of God. It drives God out of our lives and our hearts. The Word of God has spoken calling us to cherish our adversaries more than we cherish our grudges. We do that first by creating alternatives that express our reverence for the dignity of all God’s children. We need long thought and a lot of prayer to become creative, transforming holy images of our God.
The Gospel of nonviolent resistance is very serious — yet humorous to boot. This Gospel calls us to cherish our adversaries more than we cherish our grudges. We do that by not letting anyone get away with denigrating others, and creating alternatives that express reverence for the dignity of everybody involved. We need long thought and prayer to become creative, transformative, holy images of our God, and that is what will lead us to perfection.