Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
As we continue to hear the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, today we come across some of the most challenging parts of Jesus’ discourse: "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. … 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."
Is it possible to love people who are against us, or who are actively seeking our destruction? Doesn’t turning the other cheek invite aggression, or in more individual terms, abuse? Doesn’t it make more sense to keep fighting, to use overwhelming force so that our enemies pose no threat? Don’t we need to be aggressive in order to insure that people don’t walk all over us?
What could Jesus be thinking, telling us to do such foolhardy and probably life-threatening things? Ultimately, Jesus is telling us to follow Him. He is telling us to love, as He loves. Jesus does not love us, expecting anything in return. He does not force Himself upon us, nor does he charge us for His affection. When betrayed, and arrested and lied about, then scourged and tortured and nailed to a cross, executed as a criminal without having committed any crime, He did not return violence with more violence. He did not add to the evil already done. And so when we work against injustice, we are not to add to the evil already there.
But maybe the most disturbing aspect of what Jesus says is that He calls into question so many of the things we have done and the attitudes we have had to and about others. Could it be, with all the wars and insurrections, holy wars and crusades, all the retaliations and retributions and terrorist attacks, all the character assassinations and name-calling, all the racial epithets and slurs, all the discrimination and attempts to put others "in their place," all the demonizing and stereotyping, and executions, all carried out in the name of justice, or in the name of God, that we’ve gotten it all wrong all this time? I hesitate to give an answer, but Jesus keeps putting the question before us?
Would we dare do things differently? That’s a scary proposition. It could open us up to God knows what. But when I struggle with this, I often think, where has what we have been doing to each other gotten us so far? Could we not build on the good things that have been done?
All this reminds me, once again, of the need for grace. I am in no way able to follow these commands of Jesus without the grace of God and the power of the Spirit. May we surrender to God’s love instead of to justifications for violence and retribution.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P. is on staff at St. Paul of the Cross Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.