LOVING LIKE JESUS DID
Lev 19:1-2,17-18; 1Cor 3:16-23; Matt 5:38-48
One of the central tenets of a democratic society is that every person has certain rights to which he/she is entitled. Democracy holds that all human beings have the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Supposedly, a democratic court system is there to protect these various rights. It calls for one to stand up for one’s rights, and when one feels that someone is trampling the rights to which one is entitled, one has to fight back, to speak up, and to refuse to stand idly by.
Today’s gospel text contains Jesus’ teaching on how, we, Christians should view our rights as citizens of Heaven. Jesus tells us that rather than focusing so much on ourselves and what we think we deserve, we should instead put our focus on others and love them like He, himself, did—with little regard for our own so-called rights.
- THE LAW OF RETALIATION
For the past three Sundays, we have been reading from the Sermon on the Mount. Today. Jesus presents his discourse by pointing his listeners to a well-known law and challenging them to look at it from a different, deeper perspective. He examines two such commands. The first is “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” (Mtt 5:38). Here, Jesus starts by quoting an Old Testament law, stating that punishment should be proportional to a crime. Matt 5:38, Ex 21:24, Lev 24:19ff). This principle comes from the Code of Hammurabi (1793-1750 B.C.), otherwise called in Latin the lex talionis, which means the law of retaliation. Although this principle may seem gruesome to modern ears, in ancient days the lex talionis was actually a step toward a more civilized approach to conflict. It was intended not to command people to do violence but to set limits on giving vengeance for an offense. Human nature tends to respond to one injury by trying to inflict a greater injury on the other person. Our human spirit naturally toils in vengeance. If someone hurts us, we want to hurt them more.
For instance, in ancient societies, when one person attacked someone from another tribe, that tribe would respond by attacking the other person’s family, and things would eventually escalate to an all-out war. The law of retaliation sought to limit that. This principle showed people that it was wrong to kill another person because he/she injured your eye. The most you could do in return was to injure his/her eye. And if someone knocked out your tooth, you could not respond by breaking his/her arm. The most you could do was to knock out his/her tooth also. You see, the lex talionis was actually a step in the right direction.
Moses integrated this practice into the law of Israel, to be implemented by judges, not by the victims. However, over time, the flaws of this principle became very apparent as it was difficult to ensure that equivalent injuries were inflicted when retaliating. For instance, how can we be sure that by knocking out one of the teeth of an adversary it was causing the same hardship that the injured had experienced? What if the tooth that is being knocked out in revenge was already a damaged tooth? Nonetheless, by this principle, there was some assurance that the punishment inflicted was equivalent to the hardship that had been caused. Seen from this point of view, we now have greater insight into what Jesus teaches us today.
- THE NEW LAW OF LOVE
“But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow” (Matthew 5:39-42). Jesus instructs us, his listeners, that we should not seek retaliation, even if we would be justified (under the lex talionis) in doing so. Basically, Jesus is teaching us not to hang unto our ‘rights’. Instead, he calls on us to show grace to the people around us. To this effect, Jesus gives four illustrations of how this can play out in our daily lives.
- a) Jesus tells us “to turn the other cheek”. This phrase has become part of our culture. It has been inserted into our everyday language. Jesus is simply saying that when we are unjustly attacked or insulted, we should not retaliate—as a matter of fact, sometimes it is best to simply let our own injury slide away. We should not to reciprocate evil with evil. Love means to return good for evil, blessing for curse, and prayers for those who inflict us pain.
- b) He says that if your shirt is taken from you, you should give your coat as well. We are not to resort to violence.Love means being ready to sacrifice and to renounce retaliation. To love on the fullest is even to give up our certain “rights”. We should be willing to be inconvenienced or “put out” in order to show grace, mercy, and honor to other people.
- c) We are used to the phrase to “go the extra mile”. Jesus says: “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles” (Mtt 5:41). At Jesus’ time, Israel was occupied by the Romans. One of the conditions of this occupation was that a Roman soldier could command a citizen to carry his pack for up to a mile, and there was nothing the citizen could do about it. Jesus was saying that even though this was an unfair practice, Christians should not complain about being commanded to do something like this. As a matter of fact, they should not merely do the bare minimum, but should go above and beyond what was asked. We are not to grudgingly oblige, but to joyfully serve, even if it is unfair. The key to this attitude is learning to see beyond your “rights” to the person in front of you.
- d) “Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow” (Mtt 5:42). Jesus wants us to be generous in giving to those in need, or loaning to those who need to borrow from us. Instead of selfishly hoarding what we feel like we deserve, we ought to be willing to give to those who have genuine need. Jesus is not saying we should encourage people who are unwilling to work or who are in need because they are foolish with their money, but he is saying that our default position should be to say ‘yes’ to a person in need, rather than immediately looking for excuses not to help or concluding that it is not our responsibility.
- A RADICAL AND NEW TEACHING
This is a radical teaching. It is also radically different, and hitherto unknown. From these examples given by Jesus, the common theme is that CHRISTIANS SHOULD NOT BE SELFISH! The lex talionis was all about making sure that no one took advantage of you, and that you got what you deserved from others. But Jesus tells us that our concern should not be about getting what we deserve. It should be about looking for ways to serve, honour, and love the people with whom we interact each day. For instance:
- When someone says something mean to us, we do not say something mean in return—instead we either hold our tongue or look for a way to be kind in the face of unkindness.
- We do not try to give someone a “taste of their own medicine”. It is tempting to do to others what they have done to us. When someone makes a mess and does not clean it up, to we do not do the same so they he/she can know what it is like. We are called to show grace—to be kind and caring to someone, even when he/she does not deserve it.
- We have once found ourselves having to do things we would rather not do. We are called to serve at such moments with joy rather than grudgingly. We can even go above and beyond what is required.
- We choose to be generous rather than selfish. We need to look for ways we can give to others instead of looking for ways we can keep things for ourselves.
For Jesus, Christians are supposed to be different from ‘people of the world’. People of the world are concerned about making sure their rights are not trampled, but Christians should be concerned with caring for others. The world says when someone hurts us, he/she should be punished. The Christian rejoices that God did not choose to punish us as we deserve. Instead, he extended (and continues to extend) grace. Christians seek to extend that same grace to others.
- THE MEANING OF TRUE LOVE
The command to extend grace to others is difficult, but Jesus’ second command, today, is equally as difficult. He tells us that we are to show love to everyone, regardless of what we think about them or what they have done to us. Listen to what Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies” (Mtt 5:43-44). In Jesus’ time, though, your neighbour was supposed to be a fellow Jew. Love was to be shown only to a fellow Jew. Non-Jews were to be treated as the outsiders they are. Jesus says, we are called to love others the way God has loved us. Because we have experienced Christ’s love, we should love differently. Look at how the world loves—no one has trouble showing love to someone whom he/she likes, or to someone he/she thinks will love him/her back. But people (even really nice people) do not typically show love to people who are mean to them, or people they really do not like, let alone someone they would consider to be their enemy! Jesus says, if we only love those we like, there is nothing commendable in that. It is what everyone does. We, however, are expected to love like God does. God provides for the needs of good people and evil people alike. He shows love to those who love Him and those who hate Him.
In practical terms, there are people whom we do not specifically call ‘enemies’ per se, but these are people we struggle to love. Sometimes, even amidst prayer, Christians call fo divine revenge on their enemies: “Back to sender!”; “Thunder fire you!”, “Holy Ghost fire, burn you!”, etc. Loving people who are nasty to us does not come easy. Such people may include:
- The non-believer who who is outspoken in his/her opposition to your Christian beliefs.
- The person who holds an opposing political or ideological view from you.
- The person who seems proud, careless, or foolish.
- The person who is mean and unloving toward you; the one who tramples on your “rights”.
- The person who makes you look bad (either intentionally, through slander, or simply by being better than you are.)
- The person we feel does not deserve the blessings he/she has.
- The person who cannot or will not love us back (it is hard to love when we feel like there is nothing in it for us.)
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but this can give us an idea of what Jesus is saying. Biblical love has nothing to do with how we feel. Loving as Jesus commands is, often, a major problem in many marriages today. Love is not a feeling; it is a choice. We must choose to show love to others, even when (especially when) we do not feel very loving. True love implies a lot GIVING and FORGIVING. Just like when our Lord Jesus Christ hung on the cross, surely, he did not experience any loving feeling towards his executioners but HE WILLED them good by saying, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do,” (Lk. 23:34). Because of Jesus’ forgiving love, he changed the hearts of his enemies. Jesus commands us to love our enemies, not because he approves of their wickedness, not so much because of what they are now—sinners, but because of what they can become—saints.
Loving as Jesus commands also benefits us personally. When we hate our enemies and resent them, we end up hurting ourselves far more than we hurt our enemies. An anonymous author explains it this way: “When we hate our enemies we give them power over us, power over our sleep, power over our blood pressure, power over our health and happiness. Our enemies would dance for joy if they knew how our hatred tears us apart. Our hatred is not hurting them at all. It only turns our own days and nights into a hellish turmoil.” To achieve this level of love, we must strive to be “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Mtt 5:48).
- THE UNIVERSAL CALL TO HOLINESS
In the first reading today, we heard the Lord directing Moses to say to the sons of Israel, “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2). At the end of the gospel reading, Jesus said to his disciples, “You must therefore be prefect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Both statements actually mean the same thing. To be holy is to be perfect, and to be perfect is to be holy. The two statements were addressed to the entire people of Israel and all the disciples of Jesus, respectively. They were not addressed to any elite group or group of religious specialists; be they priests or prophets or religious. That is to say, the Lord demanded holiness of the entire people of Israel, while Jesus made it mandatory for all his disciples to seek perfection. In other words, the quest for holiness or perfection is not optional for any disciple of Jesus. It is a “MUST”. That is what has led the Catholic Church to conclude that holiness or perfection is the vocation of every disciple of Christ; that is every Christian.
Both the first reading and the gospel agree on the means to achieve holiness or perfection. That means is LOVE. But it is not just any kind of love. Rather, it is a love that extends to even so-called enemies. We must love them also. The reason is simply that God, our heavenly Father, loves everyone, and does not withhold his love from anyone including “bad men” and “dishonest men”. And since we are required to be holy and perfect as our heavenly Father, we must love as he loves. We must love universally.; that is, we must love everyone, including those who have been “bad” and “dishonest” to us.
In the words of today’s reading, the obligation to love universally does not allow us to exact vengeance on anybody or to “bear a grudge” against anyone or “offer the wicked any resistance.” It would require us to turn the other cheek, give our cloak along with our tunic, and go the extra mile even for those who hate us and translate that hatred into hateful actions against us.
Sinful human beings do not naturally love in the way Jesus commands us to do. But we, Christians, have an advantage that the rest of the world does not. We have experienced this kind of love firsthand. Listen to how Paul described this love in his letter to the Romans:
“When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:6-8). God did not love us because we deserved it. As a matter of fact, Jesus died for us while we were still enemies of God. Jesus showed us a love we did not deserve. We are called to do same to others.