Previous to today’s passage Jesus taught, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (v. 20). In today’s gospel passage Jesus gives further concrete examples on what it means for the disciples’ righteousness "to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees." This teaching follows a form: "You have heard that it was said…. But I say to you."
I sometimes think I would like to preach a homily on the places "but" appears in the gospels. Just when people are in an impossible situation, or something difficult is asked of us, the "but" enters the story line. "But" signals something God is about to do. I think our faith needs to leave room for the "but" – God coming to do what we are definitely unable to do on our own. Name the difficult situation in our lives and then, in faith, step back and let God surprise us with, "But..."
Today’s text has the last two of Jesus’ "antithesis teachings": on retaliation (vs. 38 – 42) and relations with our enemies (vs. 43 – 48). Even people not literate in biblical texts quote the Old Testament passage, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," as justification for "getting even" with someone who has offended them. They also quote it to justify the death penalty. They may not know it, but they are quoting Exodus 21:22.
It’s called the "lex talionis," which prescribes a retaliation in kind. In other words, it set limits on punishment; the punishment was not to exceed the crime. It was a way of restricting excessive cruelties and endless bloodletting in response to offenses against the community, or a family. It was not meant for personal grudges and conflicts. It was a guide for administering justice. Jesus is requiring his disciples not to seek revenge when someone has offended, not to "get even." He’s asking us to be free and not to let the behavior of someone who harms us determine our actions.
This passage is hard to hear in the light of our national debate about security. Imagine the response many would make to it. "Get real! Get your head out of the sand and face reality!" Still, Jesus gives specific examples about not resisting an evildoer and so challenges us not to respond in kind to violence: whether it be to a slap – in a court room – or when we are under duress. Someone initiates violence against us, but we respond in kindness. Quite a challenge, isn’t it!
Indeed, when evil is done us we not only don’t retaliate, we act positively towards the offender. Maybe that’s what keeps us from being passive doormats. We take the initiative to return evil with good. Will our non-retaliatory behavior have a healing effect on the aggressor? It may, or may not, but at least we are acting in Jesus’ name. We do no harm, we act to bring love and healing to a negative situation. Is that what he meant two weeks ago when he told us we are the "salt of the earth" and "light of the world, a city built on a mountain?"
Acting so contrary to the world’s usual way of responding will certainly be a salty sign and a bright, visible light in our environs. If we act as Jesus instructs us we will be hard to miss; hard to ignore, just as he was. Jesus has shown us the way. He was victimized, but he chose not to be a victim. Instead, he freely chose to continue his preaching and miracle working for our sake. He freely laid down his life for us.
The Christian, though seemingly victimized, doesn’t wallow in the hurt, but goes a step further, choosing to turn the cheek; not only surrender to the demand for the tunic, but hand over the cloak as well; not only go the mile, but choose to go the extra mile. Lending to a borrower comes under a different rubric. Mosaic teaching required lending to the poor, without charging them interest (Exodus 22:5; Leviticus 25:36 – 37). Jesus doesn’t urge his disciples to "lend," but to "give." He seems to be calling for a habit of generosity from his disciples. Indeed, we are to exceed the normal expectations of generosity. If we do so, our actions would stand out, characterized by a wisdom that challenges the world’s wisdom.
What unique and unusual behavior Jesus asks of us! We are not to separate people into categories; preferring "our kind" to "them." We are to treat all in the exceptional way Jesus describes in his Sermon. We are not kind to people because they are kind to us, or because they come from the same group we come from. We don’t just lend to those we judge the "deserving poor." No. As disciples of Jesus our actions are so different from the ways of our world that we can’t help but draw attention to ourselves. It is not something we seek, but is the result of our unusual way of living. A small light may seem insignificant, but in a dark world it is easily seen and stirs up a response. And the response won’t always be positive. Jesus has warned us that we will be persecuted because we follow him and his ways (v 5: 11).
We act lovingly towards even the unlovable because we are children of the one Jesus has called "Father," who "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (5:45). God loves all and blesses both the good and bad, the just and the unjust. The conduct of others does not determine God’s ways towards them. That’s true for us as well. Our God’s love does not play favorites, nor should we.
Jesus is not asking us to do something difficult on our own. The very Spirit that moved Jesus to be so expansive in his love has been given us at our baptism. That Spirit makes us children of God, able to love those God loves – in the way that God loves.