Today’s reading is foundational for those who claim to be passivists or conscientious objectors. Jesus says, “ When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.” These words of Jesus were preceded by referencing the law of retribution (lex talionis) found in the Book of Exodus, demanding justice equal to the offense, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. Using the law of retribution as his starting point, Jesus continues to teach his disciples the following: “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.”
The scriptural passage from Mathew (5:38-48) we are focusing on today, reflects the thorny issue of the difference between a literal interpretation of scripture as opposed to a figurative one. The difference does not make itself apparent at the outset, it takes some time to grapple with the reading and using our reason to know how to interpret the passage.
If we were to take today’s reading literally without questioning the deeper meaning Jesus intended, we would have to summarily dismiss some obvious questions and conflicts. For starters, complete passivism in the face of evil surfaces a myriad of problems along with an apparent condoning of evil. Does Jesus intend his disciples should not fight against evil at all? If he does, then he would approve tyranny and violence against citizens as a legitimate of governance. Does Jesus’ teaching presuppose an acceptance of domestic abuse when a partner is ongoingly being victimized? Should a mob in a neighborhood terrorize the residents without any fear of being stopped? Is Jesus really advocating evil to continue without any response? Unthinkable, Jesus is never an ally with evil, nor has he ever condoned it. Therefore, we can be pretty sure the teaching should be understood from a figurative rather than a literal perspective.
From a figurative perspective, the teaching of Jesus becomes more understandable. As mentioned, his words springboard from the old law of an eye for an eye. This type of justice Jesus is critiquing leads only to two persons without eyes. The problem is simple, evil not only happens when one eye is plucked out but continues by the removal of a second eye. Actually, there is no real justice, just two eyeless people.
In opposition to the continuation of evil, Jesus recommends a new way to deal with evil by stopping it after the first offense. Jesus says, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Herein lies the clue to the justice: Jesus is promoting, a justice based upon love. When Christian love is inserted into the equation, it automatically become an antidote to evil. Incidentally, Jesus who is God, and he who is God is love, is the only thing which can defeat evil and its ugly cousin death. Christians are grafted to Jesus’ body through the Church, and his mission is our mission, destroying evil with love.
If we fail to love our enemies as Jesus commands, then there is a very good chance we will become exactly like the evil ones who would quickly strike you on the cheek. The problem with an eye for an eye justice is the last one to strike out becomes exactly like the one who struck first. The law of love on the other hand, provides a means by which individuals and societies can be protected without becoming a cohort in evil itself.
Jesus finishes his teaching with his encouragement, “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Christian perfection can only be accessed by living the law of love instead of the law of revenge. We should all strive not to be those who inflict evil upon others no matter what the circumstance. Only then, can Christian perfection be close at hand.