Is This Possible?

The readings for Sunday, February 19, 2017, Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-28; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; and Matthew 5:38-48.

The Sunday Gospel readings taken from the Sermon on the Mountain continue with the fifth and sixth theses and their antitheses. A thesis is introduced with these or similar words, “You have heard that it was said…,” indicating a quote from Scripture. The antithesis follows with Jesus’ astoundingly authoritative interpretation of the old law, “But I say to you, etc.” With these six theses and antitheses Matthew instructs his people how to live Christian righteousness. The fifth thesis: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” This is the law of revenge also called the lex talionis from the Latin word talis meaning “such” or “the same.” So important was this legal principle that it is found in three books of the Torah.”

Such a law was not unique to the Israelites. The Code of Hammurabi, 1700 B.C., older than Israel’s law code, contains the same legal principle with many applications of it. Thus we see that Israel’s law codes did not develop out of thin air but were often influenced by the codes of more ancient tribes.

The fifth antithesis: “But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes 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. Should you be pressed (as was done by the Roman military) into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who wants to borrow from you.” Isn’t this a set of principles to ensure that everyone will take advantage of us? Does anyone live like this? Matthew or Jesus may again be using hyperbole or exaggeration — as was noted in last week’s commentary. However, we see here the foundation of non-resistance to evil. Such non-resistance was seen in our time by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others.  A better expression for the practice of non-resistance is non-violent resistance, since non-violent resistance can be the resistance that accomplishes the most.

To sum up the fifth antithesis: A Christian does not take revenge! Not only do the Gospels teach this as a principle, St. Paul also writes on this subject, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. In fact, if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink, for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head,” (which to this writer, and considering Paul’s personality, sounds suspiciously like revenge). The First Letter of Peter 3:9 agrees with Paul, “Do not return evil for evil, reviling for reviling. On the contrary, bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.” How difficult it would be to live the Sermon on the Mount in its fullness. In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks how often he must forgive “my brother’s sin against me”? Seven times?”  Jesus answers, “Not seven times but seventy times seven times!”

The sixth (final) thesis: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself and hate your enemy.” Love of neighbor is commanded in Leviticus 19:18. The full text: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is not clear where Matthew picked  up the “Thou shalt hate your enemy.” It is not in the Old Testament, but the Israelites often acted out hatred of enemies and attributed their actions to God’s command. For example, “When the Lord God gives them over to you (the natives of Palestine), and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them,” Deuteronomy 7:2.

The sixth antithesis: “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. He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’” Is this possible? Shall we say with the angel to Mary in Luke 1:37, “With God all things are possible?”  Where can we begin the fulfillment of this difficult demand of Christian righteousness?  The Golden Rule in its various forms seems a good beginning, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” Of this rule Jesus said in Matthew 7:12, “For this is the Law (Torah) and the Prophets.”