My Dear People,
Today the Gospel of Matthew continues on the teaching of Jesus about the love of Love. Jesus continues the dialogue from “you have heard it was said” to which he adds “But I say to you.” In today’s reading Jesus quotes the Old Testament standard of equivalent of retribution, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: (Exodus 21:24; Lev:24:20; Deut. 19:21), which was intended to prevent escalating violence by making legal punishment proportionate to the crimes committed. However, though a Jew legally could demand retribution for injuries received, Jesus challenges his disciples to offer no resistance to one who is evil. He gives a number of illustrations that stunningly challenge his disciples to resist the temptation to return one offense for another.
When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. A slap on the right cheek would involve a back-handed slap from a right-handed person. In the Mishnah, such a slap was regarded as far more insulting than a normal slap and involved double the penalty for a normal one. Yet Jesus challenges the disciples to forgo the financial compensation one could receive and even endure further insult by offering another cheek.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Jewish men typically wore two garments: a tunic (inner garment) and a cloak (a larger, heavier outer cloak), though one could be used to keep warm (see Exodus 22:25-27; Deut. 24:12-13). Yet if someone should sue for a tunic, Jesus astonishingly challenges his disciples to offer their opponent their outer cloak as well.
“Should anyone press you into service for one mile” refers to a Roman soldier’s right under Roman rule to force someone to carry his equipment for up to one mile. Jesus calls his disciples to be willing to go with him for two miles. For Jesus to ask the Jewish people to show this generosity and kindness toward their Roman oppressors would have been quite shocking.
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy: The command to love one’s neighbor is based on Lev. 19:18. Though hating one’s enemy was not taught in the Old Testament, this was a common inference. Jesus, however, points out that loving only those who love oneself is what the tax collectors and the pagans do. He instead commands his disciples to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
This must have been a startling teaching for the original hearers of the Sermon on the Mount. In first-century Jewish Palestine, “your enemies” and “those who persecute you” first and foremost brought to mind the Roman oppressors. Jesus challenges his disciples to love and pray for the very people who occupy their land, tax them heavily, and treat them with violence and injustice. Such radical love for their persecutors is precisely what will make them “Children of your heavenly Father.” Whenever Jesus’ followers respond to persecution by loving their enemies, they, like good children, take on the characteristics of the Father himself, who makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
Indeed, Jesus called his disciples to be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect—a statement that sums up all six examples in the section expounding the surpassing righteousness of Christ. In the Old Testament, Israel was to imitate God in his holiness (“Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy,” Lev. 19:2). This was often interpreted in the first century as a call to separate oneself for all that is unholy—sin, sinners, the Gentiles, and so on. Jesus, however, calls his disciples to imitate God by being perfect in love, as seen in all six examples in this section. This is a love that is not tainted by anger or lust (vv.21-30), and that seeks what is best even for one’s enemies (vv. 38-47). Jesus thus calls his disciples to reflect the Father’s perfect, committed, selfless, merciful love in their own lives.
Reminder that Wednesday on February 26th, Lent begins. Think of what you want to do for Lent, do not just give up something, but do something positive that will enhance your spiritual lives.
In Jesus name,
Fr. Vincent Clemente