Sunday reflection: Matthew 5:38-48
posted at 10:01 am on February 23, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular Green Room feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection only represents my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion.
Today’s gospel reading is Matthew 5:38-48:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?
“So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This passage is one of the more memorable of the Gospels, and one of the most quoted and debated. Does Christianity mean complete pacifism, and require us to be victims of those who would delight in doing evil? Does it mean that “perfection” is simply to surrender at all times to everybody?
To me, this is both a warning and a mission from Jesus to his disciples — that the path of salvation would mean sacrificing the human sense of justice in favor of divine mercy. The Abrahamic/Mosaic law of justice — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth — was given not as a complete recompense for injustice but as a maximum limit for compensation. That concept still rings down in law today in the more modern formula, Let the punishment fit the crime, meaning that the punishment should not exceed the crime to satiate revenge, nor fall short of it to create injustice.
Here, though, Jesus tasks his disciples with the mission of salvation as a higher priority over temporal forms of justice. He wants His followers to model salvation and God’s mercy through their actions more than their words. What better way to do so than to eschew personal and temporal justices for slights? If those who assault us and slander us are our “enemies,” then Christ calls us to actively model God’s forgiveness by forgoing recompense for injuries to ourselves. We are to love our enemies rather than seek revenge or even justice, and thereby spread the word of the Gospel.
Asking these men to forgo justice is more serious than we sometimes think. Although the disciples will not make the connection initially, this is a sign of how different the Messiah will be from their expectations. The Israelites expected a Messiah who would deliver God’s justice in a direct and temporal manner on their enemies, giving them the satisfaction that justice promises. In the context of the Roman occupation, they expected the Messiah to crush the Romans and restore the Davidic kingdom in this world. They expected and anticipated the humiliation of their enemies.
Instead, the message of Jesus foreshadows the Great Commission. The forgiveness of enemies and the turning of cheeks are models of God’s forgiveness of our sins and our rejection of Him. When Christ goes to Jerusalem, He will not merely turn His cheek and give up His cloak; His captors will beat Him nearly to death, take His clothes for gambling, and kill Him on a cross. For doing this to the Son of God, mankind should receive the most terrible judgment. Instead of justice, though, this produces the greatest act of mercy. Through this sacrifice, Christ will save the world in an act of divine love, and send His apostles out to spread the Word while modeling its message.
How better to do so than to show forgiveness out of love — love of God as expressed by love of neighbor and even enemies? As Jesus Himself points out, it’s not terribly impressive to demonstrate love for one’s self or one’s family. Even the Romans loved their family and friends. Even the tax collectors were friendly to their friends. Loving those who wound us enough to embrace them and include them in salvation — that’s what Jesus did, and what He calls disciples to do in this passage.
What, then, do we do about justice? We still need to order society for safety and security with just institutions. In the reading today from Leviticus 19:17-18, the Lord tells Moses, “Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We are to act in love even while having to reprove our neighbor as a civic duty, but Jesus calls disciples to seek the love of neighbor first as the higher priority in our personal dealings.
Even today, perhaps especially in America, the idea of forgoing justice is counterintuitive. It is a difficult teaching to put in practice, maybe more so on behalf of those we love than for ourselves. It is these opportunities to demonstrate God’s love to which Christ calls us, though, and we make those an offering to Christ as our own small sacrifices and our continuous prayer. Our satisfaction has to remain in the Lord and His comfort, and trust in His mercy and justice.