In our first reading, the Lord commands, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” And then we hear how challenging and nearly-impossible the demands of holiness really are: we must go through life without revenge, without hatred…essentially, without sin. And we only have to look at a day in our life and see that to live without sin is very challenging indeed. Still, God commands us to be holy.
And Jesus helps us to see how holiness really is a blessing for us; let’s take a closer look at our gospel. Now, in order to really appreciate the implications of Jesus’ words, we have to remember that He is speaking in ancient Palestine, where society was extremely shame-based. The goal was to avoid being ashamed at all costs.
And Jesus says, “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.” A strike on the right cheek involved either a backhanded slap from a right-handed person, or an open slap from a left-handed person. Since the left hand was used for hygiene and would’ve been terribly offensive in that regard, we can imagine that the implication is a backhanded slap. But because a backhanded slap is much more calculated and intentional rather than reflexive, it was considered four times more injurious, and required a much higher reward for injuries. And so, Jesus’ instruction is much more difficult to take: not only do you not get an award for being struck and shamed, but you should submit again! Why? Because in turning the other cheek, the victim then reasserts his own freedom, his own power and control. From there, the oppressor then must decide, he is put at the disadvantage…he now has to choose. By turning the other cheek, the victim seizes the initiative from the oppressor, overcomes fear, and reclaims the power of choice…all while maintaining the humanity of the oppressor…it’s genius, and it allows us to live in holiness.
“If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.” Remember that we’re in a shame-based culture and this time we’re in a court of law, and in Jesus’ teaching, if someone takes a case against me and demands my tunic, I am now also required to give them my cloak as well. The result? I would be in court and naked and, in this shame-based culture, nakedness was an unspeakable, unimaginable condition. But shame would not be upon me, but rather upon the one who caused me to be naked—the plaintiff. He would be the embarrassed one. He would then be forced to insist that I be dressed again. A genius plan, again, and one that still allows us to be holy.
“Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles.” Roman soldiers (of 1st century Palestine) were most often Israelites turned mercenaries and they were allowed by law to force a fellow Israelite into service for one mile, but often they abused this right. Carrying the war-gear was humiliating enough; being forced to do so by a traitorous fellow citizen was even more humiliating, but by Jesus’ command, again, the victim is asserting his own personal freedom, thus elevating himself.
“Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.” While the rich in Galilee wished to invest in land in order to prosper, most often it was not for sale, since land was always passed down by ancestral heritage. But what would happen is the rich would lie in wait until a poor peasant farmer defaulted on his debts and they would pounce in order to seize the property. Jesus was suggesting instead that poor peasants should band together and help each other so that they wouldn’t fall prey to greedy creditors. They were to take care of one another and loan each other what was needed in order to prevent the loss of land. Here, again, Jesus prevents violence being done in the face of violence, all while perpetuating a positive justice…brilliant, and holy.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. Finally, Jesus reveals how the reign of God—and a life of holiness—ensures that everyone is treated equally. To treat enemies with love does not necessarily mean that their hearts will soften and they will reconcile, but it does mean that we have not allowed another to change us, control us or dominate us. In fact, just the opposite: the oppressor gives us yet another opportunity to grow in holiness.
In all of these, Our Lord is simply inviting us to see into God’s own life, where God showers his love on those who are good, as well as those who are not. God’s love is inclusive and as disciples—as children of God—we are called to share in that kind of love. For true perfection—and our holiness—exists when our love touches God’s love, and is shared with all, always.
God bless you.