7th Sunday in Ordinary time, 19 Feb 2017

From the Dean’s Desk

In today’s Gospel [Matthew 5:38-48] we see Jesus continuing his sermon on the mount.  Following on from last week’s Gospel [Matthew 5:17-37] Jesus expands on the demands set down in the Beatitudes [Matthew 5:1-12].  In this case, as it was with last week’s teaching, he expands on the last four statements: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy; blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God; blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be sons and daughters of God; blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of righteousness, for yours is the kingdom of heaven [vv. 7-10].

The words we hear today are perhaps the most difficult for us to put into action, for they seem to go against all human instinct, but they form the backbone of what Jesus’ teaching is all about – for us to be as perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect [Matthew 5:48]. He places before us words that echo the Levitical Law that we hear in our first reading [Leviticus 19:1-2.17-18]. These words form the basis of Jesus’ new teaching regarding our relationship with our neighbour.  The words from Leviticus are based on our willingness to be an image of the holiness that comes from God: ‘you must be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’. It goes on to place before us a way of living that can be quite difficult to put into practice:  they urge us to not hate our neighbour; to not seek vengeance for wrong done to us; to not bear a grudge against another; and finally to love others as we love ourselves.  All this can be quite difficult to practice.

The Roman Law allowed for an individual to exact the proper amount of justice for an injustice done to them.  Hence the mentality that states an ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.  If your neighbour stole an ox from your property you were entitled to go and take an ox of similar value from them as restitution.  If your neighbour did you a physical harm, then you were allowed to deliver the same physical injury to them.  The problem with this type of mentality, although it seemed just, is that it allowed punishment and revenge to escalate to an extent that there was no end to the sense of retaliation.

The words that Jesus gives us to replace this ‘eye for an eye mentality’ seem at first glance to penalise the person being badly treated– people can do whatever they want to the person without having them react or retaliate in any way.  But when we consider the implication of Jesus’ teaching and words we see that the responsibility is on the person doing the harm. For example, turning the other cheek does not mean that we allow the other to continually slap us.  After the Roman custom a person could only slap another with the back of the right hand, therefore slapping them on the right cheek.  If the person being slapped turned the other cheek it meant that the assailant had to slap them with the open hand on the left cheek, an action which was not permitted for fear of the assailant being brought to punishment. Turning the other cheek then instead of being a passive action, became an opportunity to stop the violence continuing.  Again if a person asks for our tunic, Jesus states that we must give them our cloak as well.  In doing this, the person taking the cloak would render the other naked and vulnerable –a position that could allow the other to break the Law [Exodus 22: 26-27].

What Jesus is asking of us is that in our relationships with others the justice that we seek should not be one that gives us gratification or allows the other to seek further revenge.  Our disputes must be settled in such a way that reprisals and revenge do not come into the equation.  Our troubles and issues with others need to be resolved with mercy and justice, after the perfection of God. This can only come about if we begin to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves [see Matthew 7:12].  As St Teresa of Calcutta mentions, the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth mentality, only achieves a toothless and blind society.  The impact of Jesus’ teaching today is the challenge to put a stop to the escalation of violence.  This is indeed a difficult teaching, but nonetheless, it is a fundamental teaching to anyone who wishes to be a follower of Jesus.

Fr Robert Bossini,  Dean and Parish Priest