The Gospel (Mt 5 38-48) takes us to the heart of the moral teaching of Jesus— there are four ringing commands that Jesus issues: love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you.” Jesus develops the thinking he receives from his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus somehow says: “You are called to much more than what the existing rules and laws prescribe. You can do much more if you let your heart govern you.” And Jesus brings examples how this might work practically.
The rule of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” comes from the Old Testament. It is also in the codex Hammurabi and was meant to protect people of unrestrained revenge. So it was not a call to counter-attack, but a call to moderation and to temper oneself. Revenge in this context is OK, but it must be moderated and tempered.
Here Jesus goes one step further. He invites us to renounce revenge and the claim for retaliation. Instead of the “tit for tat” we are invited to walk in the way of love. The motto: “As you do to me, so do I to you” should not be the motto of a Christian who follows Jesus. And Jesus gives a reason for this in today’s gospel: “Your heavenly father makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, he causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” It is out of love that God does this. We humans are images of God, and as images of God we should imitate our creator as brothers and sisters. God takes no revenge; God does not insist on retaliation – so we also should say good-bye to revenge and retaliation.
This explains the somewhat excessive examples in today’s gospel. Jesus wants to show that his followers, his friends should always counter evil with good, they should undermine evil by love. So did Jesus act according to this? Was he someone who did not put an opposition to violence and who did accept evil without protest?
No, certainly not. On the contrary!
Jesus did NOT keep silent when he confronted with evil. But he never countered evil with evil; he never countered injustice with injustice. To oppose love to evil is not weakness, is not to give in in a cowardly way. To oppose love to evil is a very active fighting, a fighting to make evil lose ground. If evil loses ground, then it can no longer escalate and grow. This may all seem a bit theoretic and not very palpable. But let us look at some examples how the expectations of Jesus might be put in practice in our everyday life.
For example: We should refrain from every form of hatefulness or nastiness in a quarrel; when there are reproaches we should not counter them with new reproaches but take the time to see if there are bits of truth in the reproach; if there was a mistake, a failure with someone, we should not again and again trot out this mistake or failure; if we are disappointed in a relation, we should not break the relation without thinking about it; if someone is clumsy, we ; should not brand him or her a fool or an idiot; if someone refuses to take a council or an advice from our part, we should not let this person down and abandon him or her; if we are exploited, if we are taken advantage of all too often, then we should not refuse to help others or to support others. These are some examples which illustrate what Jesus might expect from us today. And thus this old “tit for tat” can be surmounted, because in the other we still see God’s image.
Jesus did not presuppose that we are perfect. But he did not want to spare us the effort to explore the love to which we are able. To explore this capacity to love and not to give up too quickly. Jesus urges us to be “perfect as the Father is perfect”. If we transcend the ordinary, the usual, the normal, then we approach our humanity, we come nearer to our being the image of God.
I like a phrase by Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a Danish philosopher and theologian. He said: “The one I am, wistfully greets the one I want to be”.- “Der, der ich bin, grüsst wehmütig den, der ich sein möchte“. I like this word “wistfully”, in German “wehmütig” – the dictionary says: “full of yearning or desire tinged with melancholy, colored by melancholy”. Let us pray to strengthen this longing and yearning that time and again we leave the out-trodden ways of Christianity to become the Christians we would like to be. “The Church we are, wistfully greets the Church we want to be”.
Wolfgang Felber SJ