‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘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 the 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 Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (NRSV).
There is something that makes sense about the old ‘eye for an eye’ and ‘tooth for a tooth’. It has the authentic scent of this-word reality. Wherever there are people there is dispute, violence, power-plays, and the deep-seeded need to get even.
Unfortunately, payback rarely works out as fairly as it looks on paper. It is dependent on power, strength, and the capacity to return an injustice. Not all victims are in such a privileged position. Perhaps perpetrators choose their targets with care and, therefore, most are not.
Here Jesus speaks not to the initial ‘evildoer’ nor even to the one who sees evil done to another. He addresses the one to whom evil is done: ‘…if anyone strikes you…’; ‘…if anyone sues you…’; ‘…if anyone forces you…’. It is shocking and surprising. Why would Jesus not – at least first – address the initiator of violence or advise the relatively powerful one witnessing an injustice?
Of course, Jesus does this elsewhere. But here, perhaps because he is surrounded by the ‘poor’, ‘meek’, ‘hungry’, ‘thirsty’, ‘merciful’, and, ‘pure’, Jesus addresses the vulnerable and oppressed. He speaks to the blessed – or at least to those learning to be blessed – in the God-assuming, God-centred, topsy-turvey way of the beatitudes.
Jesus asks of these an extraordinary generosity and grace. Hear his verbs again – doing-words in response to the evil they receive: ‘turn’; ‘give’; ‘go’; ‘love’; ‘pray’.
There is, initially, little reason given for this radical, self-denial. Jesus begins with no argument as to why our approach to abuse should be quite so filled with grace. It is baldly stated: ‘I say to you, do not resist…’
But of course, there is reason behind this. This is a considered, logical, way forward.
Perhaps we do well, first, to consider what is not argued. Jesus’ hearers are not, here, invited to pursue this generous line because of the shame it will create (although this may be an outcome); they are not urged to see this as an embracing of their power and influence (although this too may be true), and; they are not even being persuaded that this approach will change the world (though, of course, it just may).
To say the least, Jesus’ logic is as unexpected as it is theo-logical. Yes, this is God logic. Read Jesus’ call to love and pray again and look carefully for the reason: ‘…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.
Essentially: Love extravagantly that you may be like your God.
We may be tempted to object, to spell out the risk of such love, articulate something of the the preserving walls of hate and fear. How can we love in a world of hate? How can we give in a universe of take? How can we live so fearlessly from within a system driven by fear and consequence?
And, I guess, this is Jesus whole point. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount it is everywhere assumed that the might of Caesar is not running, or ruling the world. The ultimate power is not the sword. The one who is over all is God – and there is a surprising generosity and capacity to suffer residing in the one at the heart of all existence. Each day God orders the life-giving sun to rise over us all; God’s showers sustain all those dependent on a fruitful earth.
Like your love, this cosmic generosity is not always returned or deserved. In fact, as the Gospel of Matthew unfolds, we are confronted by humanity’s hatred toward, and murder of, God. It looks like the end, a victory for hate and fear. The world-changing resurrection tells us it is not.
Jesus poses four final questions. They speak of a reward for going beyond a limited, common, self-serving love. The nature of this crown is not expressly articulated, but I wonder if something of it is captured in Jesus’ final vision and invitation: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
This is quite a thought. What if, as we learn to love all, we begin the journey back to being who we were originally: Natural companions of the loving and suffering God in whose image we are created.
My suspicion is that such a reward is well worth pursuing.