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In case you hadn’t noticed, we are in an election year. Actually, it seems more like we are in a never-ending presidential campaign. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to result in well-thought out debates about the issues but rather name-calling, insults, pointing out the faults and past mistakes of others, a fair amount of personal boasting, statements that begin with, “I’m gonna do this; I’m gonna do that,” and so on. None of it very edifying, nor does it seem to be moving the needle in the right direction.
And no doubt you have heard that our country is more polarized than ever. Certainly, the extremes seem to be getting more extreme. And it does seem too that everything is getting politicized; which the philosopher Hannah Arendt said was one of the conditions that make a society ripe for totalitarianism. But that is a topic for another homily.
So I think our Gospel reading today is very appropriate. We are all familiar with it; we’ve heard it before; we need to hear it again from time to time. It is a necessary reminder to everyone. Not just a reminder to the people we disagree with, the people we are angry with, the people who aren’t going to vote for our political party, but also for every one of us. On the one hand, the message is very clear: we have to strive to love everyone, not just our “neighbor”, our friends, the people whose company we enjoy and who are nice to us, but also our “enemies”: the people we don’t like, the ones who annoy us, the ones who give us headaches and make our lives difficult and / or miserable, even the ones who actively persecute us!
This is a very, very radical teaching. It was exceedingly radical at the time Jesus said these words, and it remains just as radical now. The only difference is that we are familiar with these words, having heard them so many times. But when it comes to actually living them out, putting them into practice, we realize just how radical these words are.
There is a part of this reading, however, that has not been very clear to me. It’s the first part of the reading, when Jesus says, “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.” And so on. I admit I have really struggled to understand what Jesus is telling us to do. Is how telling us to just let others walk all over us and take advantage of us? I have heard different interpretations of these mysterious words. One that I’ve heard in more recent years is that the act of turning the other cheek was actually an act of defiance, kind of like saying, “Go ahead, I dare you to hit me again.” Or, “Didn’t hurt!”
However, this explanation has never really satisfied me. I would like to offer another interpretation. These words of Jesus are a part of his Sermon on the Mount, the collection of Jesus’ teachings which expand upon and fulfill the Jewish Law, and which covers three whole chapters in the Gospel of Matthew. And these words immediately follow Jesus’ words which we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel, when Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,” and, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” As I said last week, Jesus is not speaking literally here: he is not telling us to maim ourselves. But he uses very strong language, very strong imagery, to teach us something: we need to get rid of anything that leads us away from God because no less than our eternal salvation is at stake.
I think Jesus’ words in this Gospel continue this theme of using radical examples, though not necessarily literal ones, in order to teach us something very important and yes, radical. So when Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek,” he is not literally telling us to just submit to whomever wants to hurt us. When Jesus says, if someone wants your tunic, give him your cloak as well – which basically meant let yourself be stripped naked and humiliated – he doesn’t necessarily mean this in a literal sense. Having said that, however, these words are a bit of a foreshadowing for what would come later in the Gospel. After all, when Jesus went to the Cross to suffer and die for us, he literally turned the other cheek. He literally let himself be stripped naked and humiliated. And much more than that. So Jesus gives us the perfect example and certainly practiced what he preached.
However, the interpretation that I would like to propose regarding the phrases, Turn the other cheek, and so on, is simply that Jesus is using radical examples to teach something radical: we have to forgive everyone, even those who literally hurt us in any way. Jewish Law prescribed “an eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth” – in other words, seeking justice that is proportionate to the offense rather than the alternative – a continuous escalation in grievances. Jesus takes the Jewish Law and expands upon it: as Christians, we should not even seek proportionate revenge for wrongs that have been done to us; we should instead seek to forgive. Forgiveness is the only way forward; peace is not just the absence of war.
Jesus also adds, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Incidentally, the second part of this sentence – “hate your enemy” – is not found in the Jewish law, but it was an inference that was often made. No, Jesus says, it’s not enough to love those who love you – anyone can do that – but as followers as Christ we are called to go beyond that and to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
Following Christ means imitating him. “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” These are the words that conclude this Gospel. A very tall order indeed. And this includes radical forgiveness. Lent is coming up; it begins this Wednesday. The three Lenten practices of course are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is good to incorporate each of these into our Lent. I encourage everyone to think about someone you don’t like, someone who may have hurt you, perhaps someone who holds opposite political views, and pray for that person (or those people) this Lent. Ask the Lord to help you to forgive, to let go of the anger, the resentment, the bitterness you feel towards them, so that those negative feelings no longer have power over you. Jesus calls us to imitate Him, to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. We cannot do this on our own. But if we persevere in prayer, Jesus will give us the grace we need, and He will transform us.