Today’s Gospel reading is indeed, to say the very least, most striking; but who could put it into practice? Is it practical? How did Our Blessed Lord intend it to be understood and be of most benefit to His disciples?
Obviously, I don’t pretend to answer such questions definitively, but I will -- indeed I should -- offer some suggestions, some observations, to be borne in mind when thinking, and above all when praying, about these and other like words of Our Lord.
It is not to be expected that Mother Church should always and at any given time have a clear and full understanding of everything Our Lord said and did. She infallibly teaches and spiritually endows her children that they might live to the full all the essentials of Christian life; but the broad extent and wondrous beauty of the gifts bestowed on her by the Spirit of Jesus abiding with her and in her is beyond measure. Moreover, she lives by the Spirit and is ever developing in the service and understanding of her Lord; with the result that there is much in her treasure-house that we – little children of Mother Church and sincere, though still fragile, disciples of Jesus – can only gradually become truly aware of and learn to love aright, through a developing experience of discipleship in this world, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Who, precisely, is God’s Gift to the Church that He might lead her into all truth, as He lovingly recalls to our minds for her appreciation all that Jesus said and did.
Let us, therefore, try to recall other teaching and examples given by Our Lord, other truths of Holy Scripture, other examples of God’s saints and doctors; and as we do so, let us prayerfully invoke the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
We can first briefly recall an episode from 1st. Book of Maccabees (1:41, 43), where a problem, such as occupies us at present, weighed heavily on patriotic and faithful Israelites subject, at that time, to an alien, pagan, power attempting to force them to abandon theirHH
faith and their traditional practices:
The king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, each abandoning his particular customs. All the Gentiles conformed to the command of the king, and many Israelites were in favour of his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath.
There, under the Old Covenant, the People of God decided that they must defend themselves and their religion thus threatened with extinction; indeed, later they would again feel obliged to defend themselves by fighting, if and when necessary, even on the Sabbath.
However, that took place, as I said, under the old covenant, and is not directly relevant to us who are disciples of Jesus not followers of Moses.
In the Gospel of St. John (18:22s.), however, we have something much more pertinent:
When Jesus said this (to the High Priest), one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, ’Is that how you answer the High Priest?’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike Me?’
Now that was a perfect opportunity for Our Lord to exemplify the literal observance of His own words:
If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well;
but, as you have heard, He did not do so.
St. Paul, in his first letter to the Christian community he had founded at Corinth, says in two places (11:1 and 4:16):
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
I urge you, be imitators of me.
Again, in his first letter to the Thessalonians (1:5-6) he writes:
You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord.
What kind of man, then, was Paul who set out to instruct the first Christian communities not only by his teaching but also, and quite explicitly, by his personal example?
We can, first of all, turn to St. Luke’s account concerning Paul in the Acts of the Apostles (23:2-3):
The High Priest, Ananias, commanded those who stood by Paul to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, ‘God shall strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge one according to the Law, and yet, contrary to the Law, you order me to be struck!’
Again, there was a remarkable opportunity for the literal fulfilment of Our Lord’s advice or command, but St. Paul did not subscribe to such a literal interpretation it would seem.
On another occasion, he even made – or wanted to make – provision for the deciding of grievances between brethren within the community at Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:1, 5), so as to avoid the scandal of brethren choosing to sue each other before pagan judges:
When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood?
And so, it would seem that, in the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord was indicating – but not necessarily illustrating -- what sort of spirit should animate the children of God’s kingdom. And it is, consequently, quite possible that we are wrong to look for precise instructions as regards our own personal behaviour in particular cases: if someone strikes you on the cheek, do this; or, if another seeks to take your tunic, do this; or again, if someone were to order you to go one mile with him, do this.
Perhaps Our Lord – being in a position to use but a very few human words to indicate and promote the spirit that should motivate all His followers throughout the world and throughout all time – was really preparing them to learn how, under the leading of His Spirit, to rightly decide for themselves how and when to act in all the various circumstances of life as true disciples of, and faithful witnesses to, Himself. In other words, He was preparing them to gradually acquire the ability to recognize surely and respond appropriately, sponte sua, to whatever guidance His Spirit might give them in order that they should both bear true witness to their Lord and Master, and attain thereby, fully and perfectly, the end eternally planned for them.
For such an interpretation of Our Lord’s words we can again turn to St. Paul when, speaking elsewhere (1 Corinthians 7:40) about himself, he did not hesitate to say:
I think that I have the Spirit of God.
In his letter to the Romans (12:17-21), Paul thus interprets Our Lord:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Rather, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.
There we have, I believe, the essential point of Jesus’ teaching given us in the Gospel for today --- but that does not mean that a literal interpretation is totally excluded; indeed, it may be that, as we follow the Spirit, He might lead us -- if we have become sufficiently docile to His call and responsive to His influence -- into a literal understanding and fulfilment of Our Lord’s words, and thus literally turn the other cheek, give to all who ask, more than comply with the unjust demands made on us. Such would seem to have been St. Paul’s attitude when, after making arrangements, so to speak, for lawsuits between Christians to be judged within the community, he went on to say:
It is, in any case, a failure on your part that you have lawsuits against one another. Why not rather put up with injustice? Why not rather let yourselves be cheated? (1 Corinthians 6:7)
However, until we are at the desired level of union with God, Jesus’ literal words can, and perhaps should, be understood more broadly while, nonetheless, still engendering and expressing the essential spirit of Christ and His Kingdom. Thus -- far from possibly crushing the broken reed – they will advantageously establish us on a sure basis of humility that alone can open up and solidly support a future full of hope and God-given possibilities.
For a final, and perhaps a more truly comprehensive appreciation of Our Blessed Lord’s intentions, let us turn back to the Gospel reading again, for there He gave what was most certainly His supreme teaching and desire for us:
Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect!
And such perfection He said was to be found and expressed in:
Loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you.
All those other gestures -- offering no resistance, turning the other cheek, handing over not only one’s tunic but also one’s cloak – are only pleasing and acceptable to God in so far as they are pure expressions of Christian love. At times, and under suitable circumstances, they could, indeed, be supremely authentic expressions of Jesus’ guiding Spirit in our life; at other times however -- times, that is, of our own choosing -- they could be nothing more than human gestures betraying spiritual ambition and self-exaltation.
A true mother will always be prepared to sacrifice herself for her child’s good; but at other times she might be quite strict and unyielding, as was once the case with me in my childhood. It seems I was insistent on wanting to put pepper on my dinner myself. My mother explained that she had already put enough on for me; but, nevertheless, I wanted to shake the pepper out myself. She finally gave way to my insistence and indulged me. I shook out pepper with gusto and then, of course, did not like the result. Then my mother showed her true love for me by insisting that I ate what was before me!! I don’t think I ever made the same mistake again!
And so, the psalmist said today:
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.
Dear People of God, Our Lord is the font of all goodness, beauty, and truth for us; His sublime words, however, can only be truly appreciated in the context of Mother Church’s living tradition and teaching, and only carried into effect under the Holy Spirit’s discerning wisdom and sustaining power. Let us, therefore, give heartfelt thanks to God for Mother Church; and -- humbling our native pride and forgetting our self-solicitude – let us, with her, open up our hearts and minds and commit our very selves to the guiding Spirit of Jesus ever interceding on our behalf before the heavenly Father Who, in His great mercy and loving kindness, calls and draws us by His Spirit and wills to ultimately crown us in His Son with a filial share in their triune glory and eternal beatitude.isol