Today’s readings are rich with imagery and sayings about Jewish law. To break open the word we need to put some of this in context.
Understanding the Law
In the Gospel, we hear the quote “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” which is an Old Testament saying found in Leviticus and Exodus. Many people think this is a saying about getting even (e.g., If you take something of mine, I’ll take something of yours. If you murder one of mine, I’ll murder one of yours). Actually, it is a saying about limiting violence and retaliation.
In the First Reading we hear the Lord tell Moses: Don’t bear hatred in your heart. Do not incur a sin because of them. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge. And, love your neighbor as yourself.
But Jesus takes these sayings a step further. He effectively tells his disciples – Don’t let the evil actions of another person trap you into retaliation He is saying that evil is a choice. And just because another chooses evil, doesn’t mean you have to. Jesus wants us to be the kind of person we hear about in the Psalm – “Kind and Merciful.” Jesus gives us several examples of how to put those words into action.
Putting the Law in Action – Jesus’ Way
He tells his disciples: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well” It was a Jewish custom that slapping someone on the face with the back of hand hand was twice as insulting as slapping him with the palm of your hand. So, a right-handed person slapping someone on the right cheek (like Jesus described) implies such a backhanded blow and suggests great humiliation. But, as humiliating as this would be, Jesus wants his disciples to prepare to do more when confronted by insult or hardship.
Jesus goes on to tell his disciples: “If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.” A tunic was the main garment worn in Jesus’ time. By law, a Jew could be forced to hand over his tunic to pay a debt. Now, even poor men would have owned two tunics, so losing one would not be the worst thing that could happen. But most people only had one cloak. It served as a coat by day and a blanket by night. So, giving up your tunic and your cloak was a great hardship. Again, Jesus is preparing his disciples to do more.
Finally, Jesus tells his disciples: “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles.” Palestine during the time of Jesus was under Roman control. The Romans were permitted by law to enlist natives as guides or pack-bearers for a mile of any journey. So we hear the same message from Jesus again. Don’t bear hatred in your heart if forced to obey a one-sided law or to do something for someone who you might be at odds against. Do not incur a sin because of them. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge.
As humiliating and offensive it is to be slapped in the face, to be forced to hand over a tunic to pay a debt, to be forced to carry a foreigner’s pack in your own homeland, Jesus wants us to respond to personal insults with grace, patience and forgiveness.
Jesus gives his disciples a new insight into the Law and helps the disciples release the hidden potential of love and compassion.
He wants us to learn to be perfect and holy like his Father.
Cardinal Francis Xavier Thuan
There’s a story of Cardinal Francis Xavier Thuan who spent 14 years in prison in Communist Viet Nam. They arrested and even tortured him, trying to get him to give up his Catholic faith. But instead, he chose to live his faith passionately, even while imprisoned. Here is how he describes what happened:
“In the beginning, the guards didn’t talk to me. I was terribly sad. I wanted to be kind and polite to them, but it was impossible. They avoided speaking with me.
“One night a thought came to me: ‘Francis, you are still very rich. You have the love of Christ in your heart; love them as Jesus has loved you.’
“The next day I started to love them even more, to love Jesus in them; smiling and exchanging kind words with them. I began to tell them stories of my trips abroad, of how people live in America, in Canada, in Japan, in the Philippines … about economics, about freedom, about technology. This stimulated their curiosity and they began asking me many questions.
“Little by little we became friends. They wanted to learn foreign languages. And, in time, my guards became my students!”
Today’s Gospel message isn’t just about dealing with “evil acts”, with insults and humiliation. The Gospel also gives us a challenge to go forward and use what we have learned. (“To be perfect as [our] heavenly Father is perfect.”) Jesus is calling us to take personal responsibility for our actions and for living the Gospel message.
He tells us: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus goes on to tell us it is easy love those who you love. But, sometimes, that’s where the Gospel message must begin – with those you love the most – at home, with your family. That’s where we begin learning good spiritual habits
We can all make selfless acts of generosity every once in a while. We can even give the appearance of doing it often, if we want to impress certain people – like a boss, a girlfriend or boyfriend, or a teacher. But Christ is asking each of us, as his followers, to go deeper. He wants us to form the virtue of generosity. He wants us to develop the habits of giving and forgiving.
It Starts at Home
We have to start at home. And now seems as good a time as any! So, this week, I want you to think about these things and practice developing these good habits:
We have to learn to “go the extra mile” by doing a little more than our share with the chores, and not looking for any reward.
We have to learn to “turn the other cheek” by being the first one to say we’re sorry, even if the fault is not totally with us.
We have to learn to “give over our cloak” by giving our family members the benefit of the doubt, excusing them for their weaknesses as easily as we excuse ourselves.
This is where true Christian virtue begins: at home, with those who are closest to us. Those whom we know so well … and who know us so well, and who rub us the wrong way the most often.
If we can learn to be both giving and forgiving with them, doing so with others will be a piece of cake!
Copyright © Deacon Dan Donnelly. All Rights Reserved.