NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 5: 38-44
SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TOME
USCCB link to all three readings
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."
Unfortunately, I lost my copy of Hans Kung’s On Being a Christian from the early 1970’s, because I believe it was there that I read an observation that has stuck with me all my life: Christianity is the only religion in the world whose morality calls upon its members to become like God. The quote should come as no surprise in view of the final sentence of next Sunday’s reading, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I suppose we should not be surprised by this stunning mandate after reading the preceding texts from Chapter 5, which take morality—and ultimately charity and religious life itself itself—to truly astounding heights. While there can be discussion on various shades of Jesus’ wording, the intent is clear. A Christian adopts the mind of God and weighs every one of his own words, actions, or omissions with a conscious deliberation of whether he or she is acting “God-like.”
France refers to Sunday’s text as “Retribution” sayings, in that the entire series of sayings copes with responses to good and evil. He points out that the Law of Moses, like other ancient and modern law codes, regulated the extent of retributive punishment. There must be proportionality to the offense: one eye in retribution for an eye destroyed, a tooth for a tooth, etc. In states in our own nation where the death penalty is employed, the same principle of Israelite Law is upheld. (France, p. 217)
Jesus, as is evident, does not entertain this thinking. In France’s words, “Jesus’ concern is only with the inappropriateness of such a formula to personal ethics Applied to that context it becomes a justification for ‘getting your own back.’” (p. 217) He notes that many who have understood the true thrust of Jesus’ teaching here have often declared it to be not only extreme and unwelcome, but also practically unworkable in the real world, in part because it encourages the unscrupulous and the feckless.
Part of the accurate understanding of Sunday’s text depends upon the realization that Jesus is unveiling a different sense of virtue in the Kingdom of God, a shift away from the juridical and toward the intentional, to establish a “greater righteousness” in France’s words. Non-resistance, uncalculated generosity, concern for the other—each of these becomes the new touchstone for the morality of the Kingdom, its first line, if you will. France concedes—as would most of us—that unlimited generosity to beggars can wreck an economy and does little for the beggar eventually. But the first instinct of the Christian is feeding, not means determination. Matthew’s Gospel will address such questions in later chapters.
An obvious question here is whether Jesus’ new ethic of the pursuit of Godliness is a repudiation of Israel’s Law, then in force during Jesus’ lifetime. A brief and pithy answer would be to say that Jesus has created an apples and oranges set of circumstances. The Law would remain (as does Catholic morality today, for that matter) as a necessity in an imperfect world, an aid to sort out human behaviors that society must deal with. But observance of the Law was no longer the end game: the Pharisee described in Luke’s Gospel parroting his observances does not even hold a candle to the humble publican who did not even dare to cast his eyes upward.
“Fulfillment of the Law” in Jesus’ context consists of leaving it behind in favor of a different order entirely, that of the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven. As I mentioned above, this phrase of Jesus, to be perfect as the Father, has been the jumping off point of many a prayer reflection on my part. For this teaching is as much a statement of anthropology as it is morality, cutting to the question of what is a man. It is no longer possible to divide one’s religious self from the rest of life, a serious flaw in any religion which defines completeness in observance.
In the new Kingdom of God, a man or woman is perpetually established upon the quest for perfection, or better put, the full perfection of God lived on earth. St. Paul conveys the same idea when he speaks of becoming a “new being in Christ” in baptism. I hear people tell me that they listen to inspirationals on their IPod or cell phones in between the important events of their day. The essence of Sunday’s Gospel calls for a state of mind in which the perfection of God, the quest for his kingdom, animates and permeates the “big things” and the “important things” that make up life. The things of religion are no longer catch as catch can, but the constitution of a life.