Hit List or Prayer List ? – 7th Sunday in ordinary time – Matthew 5: 38-48
Jesus, in Mark Chapter 5, after having given his disciples identity and taught them a radical way of living, as seen in the beatitudes, now teaches his disciples to be faithful to the commandments and not to the traditional interpretations as taught by the Scribes and Pharisees. What makes these six teaching so radical is that Jesus teaches his disciples to go beyond the text of the law to the spirit from which it evolved. The disciple had to live like a citizen of heaven among citizens on earth; marked with the behaviour of being salt and light to ‘the world’.
Today’s gospel deals with the last two teachings in Matthew 5; teachings that are set apart by the words of Jesus when he says, ‘you have heard it said’. At the heart of these teaching is love, but a love that could be lost in hatred and un-forgiveness.
Studying the first of these teachings, (38- 44) one realizes that these words of the OT have often been misunderstood as a vengeful command. Gandhiji misunderstood ‘an eye for and eye’ when he added the words ‘will make the whole world blind’. At the heart of this commandment was not a ‘MEASURE OF REVENGE’ but a measure to PREVENT DISPROPORTIONATE REVENGE. The ancient Israelite set limits to justice. If I knocked one tooth out, you could not knock ten in return. Having said this, the law never DEMANDED proportionate revenge; you were most free to forgive. It was simply a law to set limits. So the ‘lex talionis’ regulated revenge and retaliation for damages. Its original intention was humanitarian. However the Rabbis felt that this was too harsh and began commuting the penalty to fines.
This lex talionis, was expounded by Jesus in four ‘case studies’, verse 39, 40, 41 and 42. The case studies might appear to make the disciple look like a doormat but that’s not really true. Jesus teaches non-resistance to evil in the sense of avoiding physical violence or damage (ref JBC). Like Gandhiji, one is called to use psychological or moral resistance which throws the enemy off guard. So the strategy is designed for winning and not passive resignation or indifference to evil. The goal is to shame the opponent into a change of heart. So if one is slapped on the right cheek as a form of insult, or unjustly condemned in court of law or forced by the Roman authorities to be a carrier of goods for a mile as part of the imperial messenger service or show kindness, forbearance and generosity to others; the disciple is urged to turn this situation into a positive witness of love
Jesus must have felt compelled to place these relevant and topical ‘case studies ‘before his listeners because they lived these situations in their daily life. But even more he had to correct what was wrongly interpreted. The law of Leviticus was clear (19: 18) Love your neighbour as yourself. In their interpretation of the law, the Sadducees had dropped the words as yourself and added the words ’hate your enemies’. This narrow view would confine love to a narrow ethnocentric framework. The Jew would have no need to love anyone except another Jew. Their despise for the other nations now becomes clear. ( see in this the refugee situation of today)
But Jesus will give four arguments against such behaviour. In verses 45- 48 he will argue that the persecutor needs to be disarmed by love. “Christianity is not introverted aggression, but aggression transmuted into a strategy for winning through the wisdom of love “(JBC). Jesus wants love to be the answer in the face of hate. And so he confronts his listeners when he suggests that if you love those who love you, your reward is an INCREASE IN THEIR LOVE. But if you love those who hate you, your reward is an INCREASE IN GOD’S LOVE (JBC). So also what merit is it when you bestow a blessing on your own kin? The disciple is thus called to be perfect, a word used in the gospels only here and in 19:21 and means that the disciple should be conformed to a divine ideal.
In short Jesus confronts his listeners. It is not enough to have the scriptures in our head without having love in our heart. We can quote it, read it, learn it but it makes little sense if we don’t live it and live the spirit of it. For Jesus, the attitude was far more important than aptitude. For the attitude is the rudder that controls everything in our life
Fr Warner D’Souza
With inputs from the Jerome Biblical commentary (JBC)