Monday, February 13, 2017
You know that Jesus is getting serious when he tells his followers to turn the other cheek. It's one thing to tell them to refrain from anger, avoid lust, and take marriage seriously. But, in this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:38-48), he tells them to give up the right to strike back at those who strike them first. Is there any more difficult teaching in the gospel?
He's still in his "You have heard that it was said...But I say to you..." pattern of questioning the way that his contemporaries understood the scriptures. Everyone knew, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." That is basic reciprocal justice. If you kill my horse, I get to take one of yours. If you get unjustifiably angry and knock out one of my teeth, I get to pull one of your teeth in response. It's how things stay balanced. I like my teeth, and you like yours, and that's what keeps me from knocking your teeth out and, if I do, it's what makes you feel better when you get to pull out one of mine. No, you can't put it back in your mouth, but you get to smile at me from across the street because you know that both of us bear the mark of my stupidity. But does that really work?
Nowadays, we're familiar with the quotation attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Although there is no evidence that he ever said or wrote it, it remains an effective repudiation of reciprocal justice. What good does it really do for me to pull your tooth because you've knocked mine out? It might make me feel better in the moment. Perhaps every time I see you with your gap-toothed grin I'll get another taste of that satisfaction. But what sort of satisfaction is that really? Am I really better off because you're worse off? Does the balance of justice really tip back and forth like that? Is the world a better place because we're both down an eye or a tooth? The Gandhi-esque wisdom exposes that, but it still comes up a little short. If I'm not supposed to pluck out your eye, what am I supposed to do?
Jesus goes a remarkable step further. Not only does he reject the notion of an eye for an eye, but he asks his followers to embrace their injury and expose themselves to further harm. To turn the other cheek is not only to forego the right of vengeance but also to make oneself vulnerable to further suffering. Not only does he tell us to yield to the one who sues us for our coat but to go a step further and live him/her our cloak as well. If forced to go one mile, we are told to go the second voluntarily. Why? For our sake and for the world's sake.
Jesus says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...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?" This isn't about a reciprocal or even a restorative justice. This is about tipping the balance in favor of the other no matter who the other is or what the other has done to us. Why? Because that's how God works, and, if God works that way, we must work that way, too, or else we cannot know God.
It doesn't make sense to love one's enemies. It doesn't make sense to turn the other cheek. But Jesus shows us that God's love doesn't make sense either. God sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. His blessings and love fall upon sinner and saint alike. God does not demand justice. He foregoes vengeance. He accepts us despite our betrayal of his love. Want to make sense of that? The only way is to practice it. We practice it not to receive it but to understand it. God loves us whether we love our enemies or not. But, if we want to know God's love, we must do as Jesus has done--turn the other cheek in the name of senseless love.