Reflections on the readings for Sunday 20 February 2011
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; Psalm 103:1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Jesus was not the first to sum up the essence of the Law in the command to love. It is found in the Old Testament Law itself. To simply not kill someone was never enough to fulfill the requirement of the Law – the people of God were not to harbor hate in their hearts, nor bear a grudge. To be holy as God is holy we must love our neighbor as ourselves. In other words, we afford them the same dignity that we afford ourselves, and consider their lives as valuable as our own. The flipside is that we cannot love others if we do not love ourselves. And to love ourselves we need to know ourselves as loved. The psalm celebrates the kindness, mercy and forgiveness of God toward us. To the extent that these are real in our lives, we have the inner resources to release others from the debt of our grudge against them.
But the Old Testament reading deals with loving and forgiving our brother or sister. What could it possibly mean to love our enemy? Clearly when Jesus says that we are to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile he is ruling out responding to violence with violence. But, as Walter Wink in his short book Jesus and Non-Violence: a Third Way persuasively argues, Jesus is not advocating passive acquiescence to violence and abuse either. The people that Jesus was addressing were accustomed to being oppressed and dehumanized. They were oppressed by the wealthy and elite of society, as well as the occupying Roman force. They knew what is was to be struck, sued and pressed into service. A strike to the right cheek would have been a backhanded slap, not a punch with a fist as one might get in a fight. The back-handed slap was a put-down reserved for an inferior – a woman or child in a patriarchal society, or a person of lesser social status. The person on the receiving end is expected to cower away from the ‘strong one’. To offer the other cheek is not to respond with violence, but neither is it to accept the insult. It is to look the person in the eye as an equal and invite them to re-evaluate you and your status. If someone sued you for your outer garment, it meant that you were so poor that there was nothing else you could offer to pay your debt. You couldn’t sue a person of superior status for injustices perpetrated. But if you gave them your undergarment too and walked from the court naked, imagine the scene you would create! You would be drawing attention to the injustices of the system and shaming the person who took your coat. Your actions would unmask the dehumanizing aspects of the social system and speak loudly within a system which denied you a voice. The occupying Romans were allowed to press a local into service to carry their heavy bags for one mile, but to do it for longer than that was forbidden. Imagine the discomfort of the soldier if you insisted on carrying it further, on your own terms. He tries to pull the load from you to avoid getting into trouble while you smilingly insist on keeping it and walking alongside him as someone with power to choose your own actions. I can imagine the delight of Jesus’ audience as they contemplate how these unorthodox responses to those who try to humiliate them might play out. How is this loving our enemy? To retaliate with violence would be to perpetuate the vicious, dehumanizing cycle. To passively submit would be to leave the enemy unchanged in their sin and compound their guilt. To respond actively but non-violently is to challenge the other person on the level of their humanity, to shock or shame them into a different way of seeing things; in other words, to invite them to the insight that can precipitate their repentance. What better way to show love to an oppressor than to facilitate the recovery of their humanity? Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi are two leaders who recognized the wisdom of this approach and proved its effectiveness.
Paul reminds us of our innate dignity as God’s dwelling place. Why then would we play the power games that value some people more than others, whether as perpetrator or as victim? Paul suggests that we act wisely by ‘playing the fool’ and resist the wisdom of domination and power. Isn’t that what Jesus is calling us to do? By choosing the seemingly absurd response, we reclaim our power as agents, unmask the powers at work and open up the space for a different way of relating. To do this is to love our neighbors, even those who are our enemies, as ourselves.