Cycle A | Ordinary Time | Week 7
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
An African adage states that “if you bite my head without minding hair, I’ll bite your bum without minding pooh”. Indeed, it seems perfectly natural and justifiable to hit back when one is struck. As the adage suggests, it is not unusual to see people take vengeance even far beyond the hurt that was done to them. Hence, though ‘An eye for an eye’ sounds like a command to take vengeance, in fairness to the Law, it was actually a counsel for self-restraint; that one only hurts one’s opponent to the same degree that one was hurt and no more.
But, as Jesus continues to draw attention to love as the spirit of the Law in his Sermon on the Mount from which this Sunday’s Gospel is taken, he recommends non-violence and unlimited love as the way of life for believers: “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…. love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Another African proverb suggests that “if the poor man is made aware of what it takes to become rich, he opts to remain poor”. When we hear the cost of Christian discipleship, we might cry, “Lord, are you for real? Asking us to live like that would make people think of us as fools.” But such a reaction means that we have heard Jesus correctly. We tend to ignore the foolishness of Christ’s teaching about discipleship but St Paul doesn’t. He clearly acknowledges the foolishness of the Gospel he preaches, almost as an essential characteristic of its authenticity.
Writing to the Corinthians (1: 18, 22-24) he affirms, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God…” That is the power of love. That God loved to the extent of giving up his life on a cross appears foolish because it is so contrary to our deepest human instinct of self-preservation by any means – more selfishness, more violence, more retaliation, more possessions, more power. Hebrews (2:15) confirms that “…through fear of death, we are subject to slavery all our life”.
That’s why Jesus asserts elsewhere that: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal” (John 12:25). With the Sermon on the Mount, he reveals the secret power of love that liberates us from the stranglehold of self-love so that we can be a gift for others. Hatred kills. It not only consumes the hater but as Mahatma Ghandi famously noted “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.
As the ever-widening spiral of hate and violence threatens to engulf our world, the only way to break the vicious circle is by seeing the aggressor as misguided and absorbing the violence without passing it on to others. This is what Jesus did on the cross when he forgave his executioners: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”. This might seem cowardly but who really is the strong person; the one who lashes out in anger or the one who remains fully in control and refuses to be brought down to the same level as his attacker?
At his own trial, Jesus was struck on the cheek and accused of insolence. While he did not literally turn the other cheek, he did not hit back. He simply asked calmly and with dignity, “If I have done any wrong, say it, if not, why do you strike me?” That is a perfect example of active non-violence. Instructively, he was not struck again. His restraint was seen for the courage it is, not weakness.
The non-violent approach therefore does not mean that Christians are to turn a blind eye on abusive situations or fail to work for a more just society. On the contrary, it means giving up the right to get even while at the same time condemning all forms of abuse or exploitation of the weak. Leading the American Civil Rights Movement in non-violent resistance, Martin Luther King Jnr succeeded without ever breaking the law, drawing attention to their plight and shaming their persecutors without sinking to their level.
That is not the style of our ‘macho’ world of today where one is considered tough only when one is able to hit back hard, sometimes with hail of bullets and bombs. Yet, evidence from Northern Ireland to North Africa, to the Middle East and the many troubled spots around the world demonstrates that this approach is always bound to fail. A poster in Ireland had asked the terrorist: “You are ready to kill for peace, are you ready to die for it?”
The fiery St Paul contends that by being kind to the enemy, “…you will heap burning coals on their heads” (Romans 12:20). In other words, you will be driving them crazy. What drives them crazy is the awkwardness of responding to kindness with nastiness. For Jesus however, we are to love our enemies i.e. be wholehearted in love (“be perfect”) as our heavenly Father “who causes his sun to rise on the good and the bad alike”. That is also the meaning of the call to “be holy as God is holy” which the First Reading makes. And that’s the whole spiritual life.
The Book of Wisdom (11:23 – 12:2) explains that by His fatherly love and patience with sinners God hopes to win their hearts so that they may change and become His sons and daughters. Yet, imagine how different your life will be to place no limits on your love, to spend your time not calculating who deserves or doesn’t deserve your love.