Gospel for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (19 February 2017)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
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, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 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, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38-48 – ESV)
The reference to “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” is unique to Matthew. You will however find the call to love your enemies and turn the other cheek in Luke 6:26-35. And where Matthew talks of being “perfect” (5:48), Luke speaks of being “compassionate” (Luke 6:36) – see below. Daniel Harrington notes: “Much of the material in Matt 5:21–48 appears as separate pieces in Luke (Q) and Mark: Matt 5:25–26 = Luke 12:57–59; Matt 5:29–30 = Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Matt 5:32 = Luke 16:18; Matt 5:39–42 = Luke 6:29–30; Matt 5:43–48 = Luke 6:27–28, 32–36.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 90.)
The so-called “antitheses” – “You have heard it said .... but .....” are characteristic of Matthew.
You have heard that it was said: Remember the context of Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” This clause introduces a proclamation and an invitation: There is more! Come!
Daniel Harrington writes: “Matt 5:21–48 consists of six sections that follow the same basic pattern in their beginning: “You have heard that it was said ... but I say to you.” They are traditionally called ‘antitheses’, which means ‘contrasts’ or ‘oppositions’. As a rhetorical pattern an antithesis consists of two parts in which one is set over against or contradicts the other. When applied to Matt 5:21–48 the word ‘antithesis’ fits the rhetorical pattern but not the content. In some cases Jesus expresses agreement with the biblical teaching but urges his followers to go deeper or to the root of the commandment (murder→anger, adultery→lust, retaliation→nonresistance). In other cases Jesus’ teaching can seem to go so far as to make the biblical commandment useless (divorce, oaths, love of neighbor).
“Christians often overemphasize the difference between the OT teachings quoted in the first part of the antithesis and Jesus’ instruction in the second part. They talk about the opposition between law and gospel, or refer to the ‘new Law’ promulgated by Jesus. But the Matthean context in which the antitheses appear cautions against drawing sharp contrasts between Jesus and the Torah.
“Since the antitheses follow Matt 5:17–20 which affirms that Jesus came not to abolish but to ‘fulfill’ the Law and the Prophets, it would seem that the antitheses are intended to illustrate in what that fulfillment consists. Matthew himself appears to have been responsible for the antithesis form. Therefore in interpreting them from a Matthean perspective we should focus on their function as fulfilling the Torah rather than abrogating it. Matthew did not take them as rendering the OT commandments obsolete or useless. Rather he wanted to show that Jesus interpreted the Torah in such a way as to lead it to its goal and its fullness.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 90.)
‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’: This law, which came into force many years before what we know as ‘law and order’, was intended to set some limit on revenge. That said, it still holds some force today, implying that there should be some equity or balance when handing out a sentence for a crime committed. The Latin term – lex talionis – literally meaning ‘the law of retaliation’ – was coined about the end of the 16th century.
Modern day Shariah Law, as applied in Shi’ite controlled Iran, seems inclined to apply lex talionis literally. For example, the BBC reported on 29 November 2008 that “a court in Iran has ruled that a man who blinded a woman with acid after she spurned his marriage proposals will also be blinded with acid. .... The punishment is legal under the Islamic Sharia principle of qias, equivalence or analogy, which allows retribution for violent crimes. The court also ordered the attacker, 27-year-old Majid Movahedi, to pay compensation to the victim. The acid attack took place in 2004. The victim, Ameneh Bahrami, went to Spain for surgery to reconstruct her face but efforts to restore her sight failed.” (From the internet: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7754756.stm )
Martin Luther King jr represents the Christian tradition when he writes: “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding.” (The Words of Martin Luther King Jnr, edited by Coretta Scott King, Harper Collins, 2008.)
Martin Luther King was almost certainly echoing his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, who is supposed to have said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.
‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’: This is an obvious reference to Leviticus 19:18. But there is no commandment in the Hebrew Scriptures to hate your enemies. It may refer to other texts outside the Hebrew Scriptures but known to Jesus’ audience. For example, Daniel Harrington writes: “In the Qumran scrolls there are directives to ‘hate all the sons of darkness’ (1QS 1:10) and ‘everlasting hatred for all the men of the Pit’ (9:21). These directives are rooted in the dualism of the Qumran community: Those who oppose the angel of Light, the children of light, and the deeds of light deserve the enmity of the community.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 89.)
Go deeper! Morality cannot be limited to a set of principles and rules that are to be observed and when observed we can then claim to be “moral”. Morality is a journey into the heart of God. Jesus is “the Way” (see John 14:6). The whole message of Jesus, its invitation and challenge, comes back to one idea: Relationships! Rules and regulations, principles and ideals are useful if they support and maintain, heal and build relationships.
We are made in the image and likeness of the infinite and eternal Community of Love that we call God. One of the great Catholic guides of the 20th century notes: “Relationship is written into the very nature of human beings. As the Bible sees human beings, you cannot think about them, without recognizing that they are, as it were, made for relationship.” [Aelred Squire, Asking the Fathers, SPCK, 1972, 20] To be moral is to seek relationships, build relationships, work to heal broken relationships, do all we can to nurture and protect relationships and thus grow into a communion of life. This is, in practice, the life of love. This is, ultimately, what it means to be human.
“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 the one who is evil.” Before you get tangled up in the last part of this challenging moral injunction, think carefully about the first part: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.” This was in fact a giant leap forward morally from the situation where revenge had no limits. But it is a way of thinking that is characterized by limiting the dangerous tendencies of human beings. Jesus is thinking in terms of liberating our best possibilities: “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. Love them instead! Be an instrument of my love which is infinite, which will overcome all evil. Let me draw you into my life, my ‘Way’ of being.”
This is re-affirmed and confirmed in the following statement: “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, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.” This is not so much a command to do something as it is an invitation to be something – to “be children of your Father”. It is therefore not an appeal to willpower but an invitation to be open to grace. The love of enemies does not come as conquest for the strong but as gift for those who are available for it.
What do you think is the difference between “conquest” and “gift” here? How might this also be the difference between violence and non-violence?