Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“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).
This text from Matthew has some parallels in Luke.
In Luke 6:29–31 we hear Jesus say: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you”.
This is similar to Matthew ’s text on retaliation in 5:38-42.
In Luke 6:27–28 & 32–36 we hear Jesus say: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. … If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
This is similar 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.
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.
Reflection – A law written by God
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 5:38-48 – we continue the Sermon on the Mount. These are hard sayings: “Do not resist an evildoer … turn the other cheek … give to everyone who begs from you … love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. How are we to read these statements?
Jesus is continuing his profound – and utterly surprising – message: “Come deeper! Discover the truth of the Covenant!”. He is inviting us into the Kingdom – a state of being where God reigns. There, paradoxes abound: We gain control by letting go, we thrive when we surrender to God’s ways, losing may in fact be winning.
Jesus has told his listeners that he has “come not to abolish but to fulfill” the law and the prophets – see 5:17. The meaning of the law and prophets is found in Torah: “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” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 90). Torah is unlike law as we know it. It frames and grounds the journey into God.
The seeds of that human journey into God are already in our nature. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council remind us: “In the depths of our conscience, we detect a law which we do not impose upon ourselves, but which holds us to obedience. Always summoning us to love good and avoid evil … For we have in our hearts a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of the human person” (Gaudium et Spes, #16). Not surprisingly, therefore, Pope John Paul writes: “The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience” (Veritatis Splendor, #64).
But human nature in and of itself cannot fulfill this potential. The human journey is both gift and task. Our lives are at once, a matter of graced emergence and free response. Jesus’ vision is of a life lived in deepening relationship with God, ourselves, each other and the created world. Choices must be repeatedly made, implicitly or explicitly, for or against these relationships. We will surely discover some surprises – even shocks – in this process.
In that same place in Gaudium et Spes cited above, the Council Fathers say that “God’s voice echoes in our depths”. Shocking and surprising as the words of the Sermon on the Mount may seem at first blush, pause and listen. Wait upon the echoes of God’s voice in your heart. Initially those echoes may be faint. But do not give up. Waiting and listening are probably our most important responses. Is it possible that, when we feel as though we just do not understand and cannot see what must be done, we are silently growing?