Commentary on Lev 19:1-2, 17-18; 1 Cor 3:16-23 and Matthew 5:38-48
TODAY’S MASS SPEAKS of the essence of holiness. And why should we be holy? We should be holy, because God himself is holy and we have been created in his image. But what is holiness? Does it consist in saying many prayers? In spending long hours in the church? The First Reading today says it consists negatively, in not hating your own kind, and positively, in loving one’s neighbour as oneself. It is taken for granted that we normally act in our own self-interest. However, the Gospel says we are to act equally in our neighbour’s interest as well. Because, in the long run, it is also in our own long-term interest not just in our future life but here on earth.
In the Gospel, as Jesus continues to teach his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, he again reminds his hearers that more is expected of his disciples than was laid down in the Old Testament. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.” That sounds like a command to take vengeance. On the contrary, it was a counsel of self-restraint — only hurt your opponent to the same degree that he/she hurts you and no more. Also, retaliation could only be authorised by a court. In our own time, it is not unusual to see people take vengeance far beyond the hurt that was done to them.
The non-violent approach
But Jesus proposes a quite different approach. “Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile…” What an impractical recipe! How could any self-respecting person follow such wimpish advice? Aren’t we taught that to be a man you don’t take things lying down, you give as good as you get, and even more…?
Yet, is it really wimpish? Who is the really strong person: the one who lashes out in anger or the one who remains fully in control of himself? The one who refuses to be brought down to the same level as his attacker?
Let us look at three examples of the Gospel in action:
a. The Jesuit writer John Powell tells of a man who used to buy his newspaper from a man who always treated him rudely. One day a friend saw this and asked the man why he put up with such behaviour. The man replied, “Why should two of us be rude? Why should I allow another person to manipulate my feelings?”
b. In the film “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Gregory Peck plays the part of a white lawyer defending a black man accused (wrongly, as it turns out) of rape. One day one of the white townspeople comes up to Peck and spits in his face to express his disgust at a white man defending a “nigger” who raped a white woman. Peck stands there dignified and silent and slowly wipes the spit from his cheek. He says nothing; he does nothing. But it is clear which of the two men has lost his dignity. (And, of course, it turns out that it was a white man who raped the girl.)
Example of Jesus
c. Jesus before his accusers. During his trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus was struck on the cheek and accused of insolence. How did he respond? Did he turn the other cheek? Not exactly. Did he hit back? No. He simply said, “If I have done any wrong, tell me what it is. If not, why do you strike me?” There is no anger, no vindictiveness, no abuse. He simply speaks to his accusers in quiet, reasonable terms in a totally non-violent way. He retains his dignity while they lose theirs in violence and abuse. He does not cringe before them; in fact, he stands up to them.
Let us make it very clear. In the way in which Jesus understands it, turning the other cheek is not weakness; it requires tremendous inner strength and security. We do not see much of that kind of strength from the macho characters on our TV screens. There the slightest offence is to be replied to in a hail of bullets and bombs. But, as we know from the various flashpoints around the world, it is bound to fail. It has failed in Northern Ireland; it is failing in Israel; it has failed between India and Pakistan. And there are countless other examples.
Dealing with enemies
But Jesus is not finished yet. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the pagans do the same?”
Is Jesus out of his mind? Does he really expect genuine, red-blooded human beings to react this way to hostility and violence? How can we possibly love people who do us harm, whom we know to be evil, wicked and corrupt? Are we really to love the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, to love the terrorist, the sexual abuser…?
Problem of love
The problem here is the word ‘love’. Generally speaking, to say we love a person is to have warm feelings of affection towards them or even to be in love with them. Is Jesus asking me to have the same feelings for my life companion as for some terrible human monster? The answer is unequivocally, NO!
‘To love’ in the Gospel context here means to ‘wish the wellbeing of’. It is a unilateral, unconditional desire for the deepest wellbeing of another person. It does not ask me ‘to be in love with’, to have warm feelings for someone who is doing me and others serious harm. That would be ridiculous. But we can sincerely wish the wellbeing of those who harm or persecute us. We pray that they may change, not just for our sake but also for their own. We pray that from hating, hurting people they become loving and caring people.
Most in need
Far from being unreasonable to pray for such people, there are no people who need our prayers more. On the other hand, to hate them in return is simply to make ourselves just the way they are, to reduce ourselves to their level. And we see what happens in our world when hate and violence are returned by hate and violence.
The canker of hate
Nothing eats away at our innards more than resentment, anger, hatred and violence. Sometimes we think we can punish people by hating them but it is we ourselves, not they, who are the real victims.And, of course, it is in our attitude to hostile and misbehaving people that the genuineness of our concern for people is really tested. As Jesus says, it is easy to care for the people who are close to us, who are good to us. To paraphrase the Gospel, even terrorists love terrorists. The Mafia is known for its loyalty to its members – but not to anyone else.
The passage concludes with Jesus saying, “Be perfect, then, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This obviously is an ideal, a goal to be aimed at. And the perfection intended is not total perfection but rather to aim at that total impartiality of a God who extends his providential care and love equally to all. In the dry, searing heat of the Middle East, all, good and bad, have to endure the burning sun and enjoy the gentle, cooling rain. God stretches out his caring love to all, good and bad, and he does not love the bad less than the good. So, if we want to identify with Him, we have no right whatever to withdraw our love, that is, our desire for wholeness, from a single person. Whether a person returns our love or God’s love is their problem and their loss.
Pie in the sky
Let us not, then, just see this teaching of Jesus as pie in the sky, something that is hopelessly ideal. If we reflect on it, we will begin to see that this is the only reasonable way for us to deal with people both for our own personal growth and fulfilment and as contributing also to that of others. Jesus is not asking us to do something impossible and unreasonable but to open our eyes and see what is the only really sensible way to live and relate with the people around us.
And why should we treat other people with such reverence and concern? Because, as St Paul says today, “you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in you. If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy and you are that temple” — and so is that person next to me right now. Here Paul is speaking specifically of Christians who form the Body of Christ but, in other ways, every single person is made in the image of the Creator and God is present in some way there.
All in all we are being called on to recognise and respond to God’s presence in every single person and creature that we meet. Irrespective of how they behave. And that is true even when the person acts in ways totally contrary to God’s way. In fact, it is precisely then that the God in me has to reach out and affirm the God in the other. Mutual violence only weakens God’s presence in both of us. Paradoxically, the worse a person behaves, the more that one is crying out to be loved and cared for.
At the beginning, we said that the theme of today’s readings was ‘holiness’. Perhaps we now have some idea just where real holiness is to be found.