For the second Sunday running the Gospel features the moral teaching of Jesus. We encounter two of his best known and most difficult teachings which concern nonviolence and the love of enemies.
Jesus first gives his teaching on nonviolence, starting with the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ rule in the Book of Exodus (21:24) and quoted in the First Reading. This was a good law. Its purpose was to ensure that if someone injured you, your retaliation did not exceed the level of the injury done to you. So, for example, if someone injured your eye then you were not to put out both of his or have him killed. The law was to limit excessive retaliation: the punishment should not exceed the crime.
However, this is not enough for Jesus. He wants us to break the cycle of retaliation and violence. So he asks that there should be no ‘getting even’ or any retaliation whatever. And this is where his famous “turn the other cheek” saying arises. He says ’if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well’.
In Our Lord’s culture (as in ours) most people were right-handed. So if someone was to give you a slap across the right cheek, he/she would have to use the back of their right hand to hit you. In first-century Palestine a back-handed slap was meant not to inflict physical injury as to insult the person slapped. And if someone insulted you with this demeaning action, you were expected to reclaim your honour by responding in kind. But Jesus will have one of it. He demands in such a situation that we simply refuse to take offence and, if necessary, ‘offer [him[ the other cheek as well’.
In this spirit of non-violence Jesus then goes on to say ‘if someone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him’. It is the origin of the saying about ‘going the extra mile’. It had to do with the Roman law that allowed the occupying Roman soldiers to force people to carry his equipment or backpack for them. This was a constant source of hostility between the soldiers and the local people. If you find yourself in that situation, Jesus says, carry the backpack not just for the one mile but for two … your generous response to the soldier will get him into trouble with his commanding officer as he’d be exceeding his own Roman law that allows him to force you into service for only one mile.
These and the other sayings of Jesus are examples of how he wants us to respond non-violently to offence and oppression. Simply put, he wants us to love others as generously as God loves us i.e. unconditionally and without exception. Otherwise, he teaches, if we seek revenge or retaliate then the cycle of violence and destruction goes on … and on … and on. So, in stark language, he asks us to turn the other cheek when we are provoked, to go the extra mile when our patience and tolerance with another is exhausted, and to even pray for those who have become our enemies.
Most of us have at some time or another hit back in revenge when we have been hurt or offended. Jesus asks us to resist the urge to retaliate. He does not mean that we should ignore injustices and never make a stand against others. But for him, acting out of love will achieve more than acting out of revenge.
Is it any wonder, therefore, to quote G K Chesterton, that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
Holy Name, Jesmond
23 February 2020