Weekly Gospel Reflection—23 February 2014
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
For a lot of us, the above passage is the crux of following Jesus. It’s the practical (some would say impractical) way of living out the Greatest Commandments of loving G‑d with our whole being and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22.36-40).
While some people don’t have a problem with the above passage in their individual, personal life, they can’t see it used in national life. Here in the West, we’re big into departmentalism — i.e., the separation of church and state, spiritual and natural, work and home life, etc. We think that all of those things are separate realms and are governed by separate rules; but that’s not reality. Reality overlaps and interlocks. If anyone doubts this, just look at how one’s political views affect one’s choices regarding the environment or health care or the poor. And one’s political views will often times coincide with one’s religious views. It’s a very rare thing to find someone who’s very conservative in their political views but are very liberal in their religious beliefs (and visa versa).
But, again, the reality of life is one of interconnectedness. That is, all things are connected. When Jesus said one shouldn’t oppose those who want to hurt you, he wasn’t just talking about personal injury. He wasn’t speaking in a vacuum. He’s speaking to a people occupied and oppressed by the Romans! His fellow Jews were on the brink of violent revolt! He and his listeners see the Roman soldiers standing close by. They see the glint of sunlight on the Roman shield. The see the blood stained sword. They all know too well how the Roman’s kept peace — by killing any who oppose them.
Jesus isn’t just giving personal recommendations for the religious life. He’s speaking to people oppressed and under the watchful eye of a tyrant. To assume that not “turning the other cheek” would not have national ramifications is to not understand the situation fully. During the later parts of Jesus’ ministry, the air was electric with revolt. There were dozens of people crucified on either side of Jesus’ death, and all for the same reason — insurrection; would-be kings trying to overthrow Rome. Jesus’ warning has definite political consequences here.
In other words, as I stated above, our actions are tied to other people and other situations. They aren’t isolated incidents that have no repercussions for others around us. Life is much more organic than that.
And while Jesus’ words do impact politics, they’re also more subversive than that. They’re really about changing the hearts of people. Not in a smug piety but in a humbleness rarely seen. When you turn your cheek, you’re in control, not the person slapping you. When you go the extra mile, you’re in control, not the person forcing you to carry the load. When you give the shirt off your back, you’re in control, not the person demanding your coat.
And the only way we can act that way is by following the Way of Jesus in the second paragraph. When we “love [our] enemies” and pray for them, we begin to see the Other as a person — as a fellow image bearer of G‑d. Only when we see the Other as G‑d sees them, we will be acting like G‑d.
That’s a hard one.
Notice that only when we treat our enemies as our loved ones — spouses and children — will we be acting like G‑d. All of this talking and preaching and pointing fingers about the sins of others is not acting like G‑d. It’s not acting in love. To truly love we must love our enemies. And when we do that, we act like G‑d. And when we can do that, we can be “complete,” or “perfect,” as some translations have it.
I like the word “complete” over “perfect.” The Greek word there is τέλειος (teleios) and it means “completion, matured, to have gone through the appropriate stages to reach the intended goal.” Just as Jesus is the “end” or “goal” of the Law (Romans 10.4), we’re “complete” when we have the ability to “love everyone” (Matthew 5.48).
And this love of everyone is connected to the previous statements. To love someone is to not retaliate when we’ve been wronged; to go the extra mile for anyone; to give to whomever asks; to pray for everyone, even pray those who may have wronged us. In other words, loving someone is expressed through our actions — through what we do or don’t do to Others. When we get to the point where we treat all people as G-d would treat them, then we have reached the intended goal of being like Christ. In Buddhism, this is known as nirvana. In Christian Orthodoxy, this is known as theosis. It’s the idea of moving through the disciplines to become “enlightened” or “like Christ.” And in this passage, Jesus tells us how to get there — loving everyone.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC