Giving Like God (Matthew 5:38-48)
“Finally, may Christ inflame the desires of all men to break through the barriers which divide them, to strengthen the bonds of mutual love, to learn to understand one another, and to pardon those who have done them wrong.” St. Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris
Matthew 5:38-48 ‘You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away. You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way, you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not? You must, therefore, be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
Christ the Lord When Jesus says, “You have learnt how it was said”, he is referring to the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses. That Law gave the Jewish people their unique standing among all the nations of the world, because God himself had given it to them. For 1500 years Israel’s prophets and rabbis had interpreted it, applied it to changing circumstances, and exhorted the people to live it out, but never had a faithful Israelite ever claimed authority over it. Therefore, when Jesus says, “… but I say to you…” implying an addition to the Law, his listeners are faced with something entirely new, someone who claims authority over the Law of Moses. He is requiring of them a new allegiance and making way for a New Covenant. The Sermon on the Mount was revolutionary not only in its ideas, but in the claims of the Lord who gave it.
Jesus’ claim to have authority means that his commands demand obedience. In the ancient world, obedience to a ruler was a familiar concept. In today’s world, dominated by political democracies, it has become less so. In fact, the critical, self-sufficient, democratic mindset (so useful for politics) can even seep into the Church (where it’s much less useful). But the truth of Christ doesn’t change with fashions and referendums. In our relationship with Jesus and his Church, humble obedience to legitimate authority is a virtue, not a vice.
Christ the Teacher In St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount brings together into one discourse the substance of what Jesus taught on many different occasions. This particular passage illustrates the idea Christ’s followers ought to have of themselves, and the idea they ought to have of others.
According to Jewish custom, as Biblical scholars point out, slapping someone on the face with the back of one’s hand was twice as insulting as slapping him with the palm of one’s hand. A right-handed person slapping someone else on the right cheek (the case Jesus implicitly refers to) implies just such a backhanded blow. This shows that Jesus is interested here in how we react to insults and humiliations. We should not cave-in to feelings of resentment when we are insulted, slighted, and humiliated. If we do, it shows that we have yet to learn Christ’s precious lesson of meekness and humility of heart.
By law, a Jew could be forced to hand over a tunic as a payment of legal recompense (even poor men of the time would have owned two tunics), but not his cloak. Most often a person had only one cloak, and it was used not only as a coat during the day but also as a blanket at night. By urging us to give over our cloak as well as our tunic, Christ shows how the Christian heart reaches beyond the letter of the law and takes no personal umbrage even when treated unfairly.
Palestine during the time of Jesus was under direct Roman control. The occupying forces were permitted to enlist the natives as guides or pack-bearers for a mile of any journey they may be taking. By admonishing us to go along for a second mile, Jesus teaches us that the Christian heart fulfills every duty, even the humiliating and inconvenient ones, not with stern resentment and grumbling, but with generosity and enthusiasm.
Because followers of Christ depend on God’s unfailing love and generous forgiveness for their self-esteem, they can live out these shocking ethical norms, maintaining interior peace when most people would seethe with resentment. Likewise, because they know that Christ offers the gift of God’s love and forgiveness to every man and woman, his followers can rise above merely natural feelings of antipathy and sincerely strive to help others (even their enemies) find what they themselves have found. This universal Christian charity is the distinguishing mark of Christ’s followers because it’s the distinguishing mark of God, who is, in his very being, Love.
Christ the Friend God makes the sun shine and the rain come down on both his faithful children and the rebellious ones. His love is, in the truest sense of the word, unconditional. This means that the friendship he offers us in Christ is also unconditional. Christ is the true friend, whose love and devotion to us doesn’t depend on looks, popularity, intelligence, success, money, or anything else: he loves you simply because you are you. He can’t love you any more than he already does. There is no pressure here, only peace.
A lot of good it would do if Christ gave these impossible instructions (to love as he loves) and left us alone to try and carry them out. But he doesn’t. He walks this narrow and steep path in front of us and beside us. That was the lesson of Good Friday, when he was betrayed and abandoned by his closest friends, cruelly tortured, slandered, publicly humiliated, and unjustly condemned and put to death. Throughout the ordeal, he never once resented, hated, or retaliated. The love in his heart and his trust in the Father buoyed him up, to the point where his dying words included, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). That also is the lesson of the Eucharist, the supernatural food for our Christian souls; he gives it to us to supplement our weak efforts, to keep us strong as we follow his difficult path.
Christ in My Life
- Sometimes, Lord, and you know which times I’m talking about, its hard for me to turn the other cheek, hand over my cloak, and go the extra mile. It is not natural to love one’s enemies, Lord, so if you want me to do this, I am going to need a lot of help. But I want to. I know that only truly Christian love will bring peace to my heart, and to the world. Lord Jesus, give me strength”
- You have forgiven me so many times. You have practiced everything you preached in relation to me. Somehow, you really do love me. You really are interested in my life. How can that be? I don’t understand, but I believe, and I thank you with all my heart, Lord – you know how much I need that love. Teach me to love as you do”
- There are so many things I want to do for you and your Church, Lord. My mind and heart are full of desires to change this world and bring everyone around me into your friendship. Yet, I can barely control my own temper. Help me focus on the most important thing: loving my neighbor as you have loved me”
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.
Art for this post on Matthew 5:38-48: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. Legend of St. Francis – St. Francis Giving His Mantle to a Poor Man, Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), undated, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.