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Sunday Readings for Feb. 20, 2011 (7A)
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS
The Gospel text today continues our review of the teaching of Jesus given in what is called the Sermon on the Mount.
It seems all very straightforward and clear, even if it is at times a very difficult teaching. We are very familiar with the concepts Jesus uses. And indeed many of his actual words taken from this text have entered the language. We can immediately call to mind common phrases such as “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile” which are used by people who have no idea of their origin.
The common understanding is that Jesus is ratcheting things up for his followers. In the Old Testament, for example, the rule “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was brought in to moderate an earlier system which worked on the principle “a life for an eye, a life for a tooth.”
And now Jesus says, “Offer the wicked man no resistance” as a further moderation. He raises the standard and moves things on to a completely new level by advocating the kind of passive resistance as later taken up by the likes of Ghandi and Martin Luther King.
However, I chose my words carefully when I said, “it seems very clear”, because once you look below the surface things are not always as clear as all that.
The whole business of “turn the other cheek” is a case in point. We modern readers we take this teaching at a literal level and understand it as a physical attack to which we make no response, even going so far as to invite our opponent to hit us again.
But when you read the commentaries some other considerations come to the surface. What we find is that this is not so much about a physical attack as an insult.
Because of the nature of the wording here in Matthew’s account the scholars think that what is being referred to is being hit by the back of the opponent’s left hand. This implies an insult rather than an assault. The Christian, we are being told, simply turns away.
So we should be quite clear that Jesus is not saying that we ought to allow ourselves to be abused. We should not abase ourselves before our enemies. No we should retain the moral high ground and rise above the fray, as it were.
The Christian thing to do is to ignore the insult. This, therefore, is not so much about inviting further injury as refraining from retaliation, not perpetuating a disagreement.
Something similar is to be found in the teaching about loving our neighbour. The text says, “You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But actually this teaching is to be found nowhere in the Old Testament.
One might wonder if we are being misled here, and, if we can’t be misled by Jesus, is it Mathew who is being a bit tricky?
I suppose the point is that the consequence of not loving your enemy is not that you hate them but that you might as well hate them because indifference towards them has much the same effect.
What Jesus is getting at is that if God loves them irrespective of their actions then we should be doing the very same.
You can analyse all these things to death. And although it is extremely interesting and informative to study these texts very closely it doesn’t necessarily move us forward.
The main point though is not that Jesus sets a higher standard for Christians than for everyone else. It is that instead of looking at what other people do or don’t do we should be looking at what God does and this should be the guide for everyone.
God made us, God loves us irrespective of our actions, and God wants even the greatest sinner to love him in return and so wish to enter eternal life with him.
This is what should be the measure of our actions. Not treating others as we wish them to treat us but loving them in exactly the same way as God does.
This is not passionate love which the Greeks called eros, it is not the kind of love that comes from friendship which they called philia. No, it is the purest form of love that there is and the word used in the New Testament is agape which is often translated into English as charity.
But don’t be confused by that word either because this is not about Guide Dogs for the Blind or Cancer Research or any other official kind of charity.
This is loving others not because of any relationship or special closeness or even because they somehow deserve it. It is entirely generous, spontaneous and is given without thought of return. This love finds its expression simply because the other person exists.
In short, it is the kind of love that God has for us. And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is inviting us to lead the kind of life in which this specific kind of love is our motivating force.
We Christians take up this challenge. We’re not very good at it, but at least we are giving it a go and we really do want to love our fellow human beings in this wonderful way.
Often we forget, and frequently we revert to lower feelings and desires; but the reason we are sitting in this Church this morning is because we want to live our lives in this way. We can see the way ahead and we know that it is the road to fulfilment and the only road which brings glory to God. Having this desire is all that Christ asks of us.
There is a story of a reporter who visited a leper colony run by some nuns in a developing country. He saw a young nun bathing the badly infected wounds of leprous patient. He couldn’t bear to look at the terrible wounds and said to the nun, ‘I wouldn’t do that for a million pounds!”
She simply replied, “Neither would I.”