February 23, 2020 (Sunday) - But I Say - A Reflection on Matthew 5:38-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

A few days ago (see Anger Most Foul: https://youtu.be/OGq95AW-yP4) we saw how Jesus often prefaced his statements with: “You have heard it said,” following it up with, “but I say.” By doing this, he was putting a lot of things the Jewish people believed in proper perspective. He was clarifying the real meaning and intent of their laws, while adding to them to let them know what God really wanted. 

He does this in today’s reading. “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,”, he says, before continuing. “But I say to you. Do not resist an evil doer. If someone slaps you on one cheek offer him the other.” He says lots more but this is enough to reflect upon. But first, why was it said, “An eye for an eye” in the first place? This wasn’t, as many have interpreted, the COMMAND to take an eye for an eye, but an instruction to ensure that vengeance didn’t overtake justice.

Let me explain. If somebody hurts us, we want to exact revenge, don’t we? It’s a natural tendency. But the revenge often exceeds the damage caused. So if somebody slaps us on one cheek, we slap both cheeks. How is that justifiable? Therefore, the law declared that it was a slap for a slap. But Jesus explained that this isn’t the way of God. God’s way is mercy, not vengeance. So if somebody slaps us on one cheek, we were not to retaliate, but show mercy. But, you might say, how does this help? 

Let me explain this too. Gandhi, who was very inspired by Jesus, once said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” We can see the truth of this all around us. Everybody is busy poking everybody else’s eyes out. How do we stop this? Only when a few among us say we forsake vengeance for mercy. 

So, say you have somebody who slaps you on one cheek (this is a metaphor, by the way), you don’t slap back, but say, “Go ahead, slap the other one.” What is the first thing that happens? The person is stunned into not reacting. Or, if the person is enraged that he hasn’t provoked you in a response, actually slaps you on the other cheek. You STILL don’t react. What will happen? Eventually the person will stop hurting you and the love you show will bring about a change in him. 

And, as a consequence, this unending cycle of violence will cease. It might take a lot of patience (and punishment) to make that happen, but as Jesus has shown already, it is worth it.