“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 (Matthew 5:38-48 – NRSV).
Luke 6:29–31 has a parallel text to Matthew’s text on retaliation – 5:38-42.
Luke 6:27–28 & 32–36 has a parallel text to Matthew’s text on love of enemies – 5:43-48. One striking difference in Luke’s text here is the final sentence: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (v36). Matthew has, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v48). One commentator writes: “The idea of God as ‘perfect’ does not appear in the OT and lends itself to abstraction. The background is probably in OT sayings about God’s holiness: ‘You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy’ (Lev 19:2; see 20:26; 21:8). The word ‘perfect’ (tam) refers to the ‘wholeness’ of God who cares for all peoples” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 90).
“Much of the material in Matt 5:21–48 appears as separate pieces in Luke (Q) and Mark: Matt 5:25–26 = Luke 12:57–59; Matt 5:29–30 = Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Matt 5:32 = Luke 16:18; Matt 5:39–42 = Luke 6:29–30; Matt 5:43–48 = Luke 6:27–28, 32–36” (Ibid).
Matthew 5:21-48 has six contrasting statements. They all begin with, “You have heard it said” followed by, “But I say to you”. We must remember that this section follows the warning from Jesus: ““Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20). We should not slip into facile contrasts between Jesus’ teaching and Torah.
It is important to understand the meaning of Torah: “The English term ‘Law’ can distort the Jewish understanding of Torah. The word ‘Torah’ derives from the Hebrew verb ‘instruct’ (yrh) and refers to the teaching or instruction presented in the Scriptures, especially the Pentateuch. For Jews the Torah was (and is) the revelation of God’s will, a kind of divine blueprint for action. It is a gift and a privilege given to Israel, not a burden. Acting upon the Torah is the privileged way of responding to the Creator God who has entered into covenant relationship with Israel. It presupposes the prior manifestation of God’s love. The Greek translation of Torah (nomos) is not incorrect since the Torah is concrete and demands action. But the theological context of covenant can never be forgotten if distortion is to be avoided. Matthew presents the six antitheses as examples of the principle that Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law and the Prophets” (Ibid).
An eye for eye: This principle – sometimes called “law of retaliation” or “lex talionis” – places boundaries on retaliation and prevents the escalation of violence. In Exodus 21:24 we read: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe”. See also Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. This was a good moral step forward. Jesus is saying: “Let us take another moral step forward. Let us continue the journey.”
Do not to resist an evildoer: This a difficult text to interpret. There are varying opinions offered. Here is one of those opinions: “Jesus’ teaching moves out of the realm of civil law and judicial principles. The term ponēros is ambiguous. Since one must resist the Evil One (Satan) and evil itself, the word most likely refers to one who does evil. The setting of the saying is personal relations on a small scale. Whether it can be transposed to the social or political realms is a matter of ongoing debate” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, op cit, 88). Another commentator writes: “‘Do not resist the evil person’ does not mean that we should let evil triumph throughout our communities. Jesus is referring to private retaliation, not to public order, and he is instructing his followers not to be intent on getting their own back when someone wrongs them. To be the victim of some form of evil does not give us the right to hit back” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 126-127).
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy: In Leviticus 19:18 we read: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD”. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scripture is there a commandment to hate your enemy.
Today’s Gospel – Matthew 5:38-48 – is part of Matthew’s Gospel that begins with Jesus’ words: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). This statement works as a sort of compass, enabling us to find our way through the rest of this section.
Law in and of itself appeals to human will, self-discipline and ego mastery. This is fertile territory for the great seducer – control! If, in any human view of life, law defines what is believed to be best in us, and I discover that I am able to conform to the law, I will almost certainly feel a deep ego satisfaction. In fact, I will probably feel as though I am in charge of my life. This does not leave much room for feeling the suffering and pain of the world or the failure and disappointment that is the lot of us all if we are realistic and honest.
Jesus’ appeal is to the transforming experience of love. Love even transforms our experience of law. All love comes from God. Jesus himself is the enfleshing of God’s love. To the extent that we do truly experience Jesus, we will be transformed and become a transforming presence in the world. This transformation will go to the roots of our capacity for violence – a capacity we all have. When we know we are loved, when we are taken hold of by Christ as St Paul puts it – see Philippians 3:12 – so our behaviour will change. We will be less vulnerable to resentment and vengeance, to selfishness and meanness, to clinging on to this and that when we could be much better served by letting go and surrendering.
And so Jesus can say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). The law and the prophets envisaged the triumph of God’s desire for us all. What is that desire? “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). Jesus himself embodies God’s desire to love us into freedom. What can that mean for me on a day to day basis?
Pope Benedict XVI summed it very nicely: “We have come to believe in God’s love: …. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (The opening words of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Deus caritas est).
The next time you catch yourself being kind, forgiving, patient, compassionate etc, listen for your reaction. Do you feel satisfied or grateful? There is nothing wrong with feeling satisfied but watch out – it is probably more about ego than God. Gratitude, on the other hand, suggests you have an appreciation that God is at work here and you have a front row seat!