Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time A
“An eye for an eye…and soon the whole world is blind.” Gandhi is reported to have said that. A comic gave it a new twist: “An eye for an eye, and soon…we all look like pirates!”
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.” We find this law—mentioned by Jesus in the gospel—three times in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:21). It sounds quite brutal, even barbaric, doesn’t it? And yet, it was rather a significant improvement over what came before.
You see, when we’ve been hurt—or a family member, or our property, or our rights have been hurt—we fallen, sinful human beings have a rather strong tendency to seek revenge: “You injured my eye? Now I’ll make sure your whole family’s goes blind!” I wish I could say we’d left this inclination behind back in the Stone Age…but you and I both know that it’s there every day in the morning paper and on the evening news.
The law of “an eye for eye” is actually a way for containing the violence of revenge. It limits a person to simply “getting even.” It does not permit you to inflict any more harm than was first inflicted on you…and so it represents a step in the right direction.
Since this was clearly the law on the books at the time of Jesus, did that mean there were a lot of one-eyed, toothless Jews running around? Of course not! Actually, nowhere in the Bible do we find any evidence of this law having ever been strictly enforced. In fact, we know that in Jesus’ day the law was interpreted in favor of paying a ransom: “You knocked my tooth out! By rights, the law allows me to now knock out one of yours…but that won’t do either you or me any good, will it? So what’s that tooth really worth to you? Pay me a ransom for it, and you’ll get to keep it, and we’ll call things even.” It might only be a small step, but it’s still another step in the right direction!
You begin to see here the long-range lesson plan by which God teaches the slow-learning human race, moving us from revenge, to limited retribution, to a ransom as restitution. Now, in Jesus, God seeks to make one last big stride forward—all the way to reconciliation: “Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.”
Scientists tell us that we human beings, like every other animal on the planet, have two basic instincts when we’re under attack: fight or flight. You can put up your dukes, or turn tail and run. Those two options make perfect sense in the law of the wild, where it’s all about survival of the fittest. But we humans are different than all the other animals. Our lives are not governed by instinct, but free will. For us, fight and flight both result in certain loss: flee, and you cede the higher grown to the one who does wrong; fight, meeting violence with further violence, and you lower yourself to the same level as the wicked.
Jesus teaches us a third way. Turning the other cheek can sound rather passive and naïve, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Jesus is certainly not saying that Christians ought to be the world’s doormat. To stand your ground when slapped reveals an incredible strength, forcing your oppressor to look you in the eye as you essentially say, “You will not treat me this way.” The red handprint on your face also forces an enemy to confront his own injustice. It’s a tactic aimed not so much at conquering your foe, as it is as opening her to conversion. You put up a counterintuitive sort of resistance—one that challenges the other to repent. Evil can only intensify when met with further evil, but it is completely disarmed when it comes face-to-face with goodness. Jesus teaches us to feely renounce our legal right to retaliate in favor of a higher purpose—of something far stronger than vengeance or hate or even death: of the all-surpassing power of love.
The gospel teaching we hear this Sunday is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It’s the fourth Sunday in a row that we hear a portion of it. It’s no accident that Jesus is speaking to us on a mountain. Where did Moses receive the law from God? On a mountain. This Sunday and last, as Jesus provides a rather authoritative commentary on that law, his mountainside perch is a subtle hint at who he really is. But there’s more to it than that. To ascend a mountain, you must gradually climb higher and higher. Jesus is calling us to continually greater heights in our relationship with God.
This Sunday, Jesus is asking us, “What’s your standard in moral action? How do make ethical decisions?” Is your standard one of fairness? (That’s “an eye for an eye.”) That’s an OK place to start—but come higher. Is your standard to be better than the next guy: “At least I’m a cut above those tax collectors and pagans!” Come higher still. Is your standard obedience to the commandments of God? That’s the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. But for disciples of Jesus, that too must be surpassed…
In the Christian tradition, the sayings of Jesus we hear this Sunday and last—“You have heard it said…but I say to you…”—are known as “counsels of perfection.” They are not substitutions or replacements for the law. (Jesus assured us last Sunday that he hadn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.) These “counsels of perfection” call us to yet another standard—to something even higher than the law. The strict dictates of law provide an essential foundation, to be sure, but meeting them is a matter of minimal requirements. Just imagine a couple trying to convince you they have the perfect marriage purely by the standard of the Ten Commandments: “We don’t lie to each other, or cheat on each other, or steal from each other. Heck—we haven’t even killed each other yet! Ours is clearly the ideal marriage!” Doing no harm is pretty important in a relationship…but it’s only a start. There is, of course, no law that says a husband much ever buy his wife flowers—not even on St. Valentine’s Day. But if he never does anything so generous or tender, one could rightly begin to question if his love were growing cold. Law requires the minimum; love calls us to always keep doing more.
For those who follow Jesus, who want to grow in their relationship with God, it’s not enough to keep the law; we’re to become more and more like the Lawgiver. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points to the summit saying, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He repeats what we first heard in Leviticus: “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” To truly love one’s enemies—is there any possible way to be more like God than that? The old saying is spot on: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”
How are you doing at being perfect? We strive for it, and keep on trying…but we also keep on faltering and failing. Did Jesus ask us to do the impossible? No. It’s that we go about it wrong. We mistakenly think we can become perfect all on our own. St. Paul uncovers the secret: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God? That God himself—the Holy Spirit—dwells within you? And where God dwells—his temple—is holy.” God alone is perfect, and it’s only his presence within that can perfect us. To be holy, to be perfect, is never a personal human achievement, but always a gift, a God-given grace. Our part is to be open to receive it.
We sang in the words of the psalm, “The Lord is kind and merciful.” My friends, let us become more and more like the Lord: treating our friends with human kindness, and treating our every enemy with divine mercy.