MARY M. MCGLONE
Today’s Gospel brings us the sayings of Jesus that are probably most vulnerable to misinterpretation and disastrous results. How many times have abused people been told to turn the other cheek? How many times have ideas from this selection been used to stop protests against injustice? How has the fatalism of the “resistance is futile” attitude become a mortal danger not just to humanity, but to the earth itself?
To grapple with this section of the Sermon on the Mount we need to understand what Jesus taught about the relationships that characterize the kingdom of heaven. Preceding today’s reading, Jesus talked about in-house affairs, relationship with a brother, a husband or colleagues. Now he describes how the blessed participants in the kingdom of heaven can deal with their adversaries.
As before, Jesus introduced his teaching with “You have heard … ” and then quoted an ancient guideline designed to break cycles of increasing violence. “An eye for an eye” assured that whether the person offended was a king or peasant, no more could be exacted from the offender than the loss he had caused. That was strict justice. But, as Gandhi pointed out, while that might have stopped violence from snowballing, it also created a lot of blindness. Jesus wanted his followers to see things differently.
Jesus wanted his followers to circumvent the spirals of hostility in the world, thus he taught them how to respond in a way that decreases antagonism and increases humanity. The “lex talionis,” an eye for an eye, recognized objective equality in terms of damage. The alternative Jesus proposed personalized the interaction. In his examples the injured party who refuses to be treated as an inferior human being becomes the greater in terms of humanity, simultaneously inviting the other into a more human milieu. That sounds a bit like “The last shall be first,” and it also presages how Jesus would respond to his own arrest, saying that those who live by the sword will die by it.