Monday, February 20, 2017

On Turning the Other Cheek: 7th Sunday of OT (Cycle A)

   It is common knowledge that we Christians are supposed to “To turn the other cheek”. In fact, this phrase is used as a reminder that we are not supposed to stand for ourselves whenever we are being persecuted or attacked. It reminds us that we are supposed to go quietly into the night without fuss, without complaint about the way others oppress, mistreat, take advantage and abuse us.
    Is this what Jesus had in mind? Well, he certainly tells us in the same reading to “offer no resistance against those who do us evil” and that we are supposed to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us”.  But if we just pick these three short passages from today’s gospel and give them that very shallow interpretation we are completely missing the point of what Jesus is teaching us. Why?? Because this “turn the other cheek” business does not stand alone in the reading.  If we pay attention there is also this other business about giving up our tunic along with our cloak, and carrying a heavy load the extra mile.  And we are to do all three things out of love for our enemies
  To clearly understand what Jesus is telling us, this is one of those times we need to bring to mind the context of why, when, where and who were listening to the Lord when he spoke this teaching. Now, we know that Jesus lived in a time in which the Jewish people were been oppressed by a Roman occupation force. We also know that Jesus lived in culture with very specific rules of behavior. For example, under Jewish law when a man was taken to court he could lose everything he had, everything except his cloak. You see, Jewish men of this time wore just two basic pieces of clothing: a cloak and a tunic. If a man were to lose both he would be left naked, which in this time was source of great shame, not to the naked person but to those who looked at him. So by Jesus saying to also give your cloak away he is saying “Don’t be afraid to show your enemy the shame their actions cause to those who are just quietly observing”.
  Now in the times of Jesus, Roman soldiers could force regular people to help them carry their equipment, but only for one mile. If they forced anyone to go a longer distance they would break the law and incur in serious disciplinary actions. By telling his disciples to go “the extra mile," Jesus is telling them “do not be afraid to let your persecutors know that their actions are immoral and a sin against justice”.
   Ok, so, with this background... what about the “turn the other cheek” business? Notice that Jesus' original words were “If someone strikes you on your right cheek”, which if you ask me is a bit too specific. Well if we think about it, in a world which is mainly right-handed, a slap across the right cheek would be most likely done with the back of your right hand, back-handed. In Jewish culture, this type of slap was meant not so much to inflict physical injury as to cause dishonor to the person slapped. In fact, if someone dishonored you with a demeaning back-handed slap, you were expected to reclaim your honor by responding in kind. So Jesus is telling his disciples “do not ignore evil actions against yourself, but do not retaliate. Make a stand, let those who attack you know that they will not intimidate you into silence, and that their actions do not dishonor you but them”
   Now why would the Lord teach and expect from his disciples such non­violent response to oppression rather than just turning around and walking away?? The key is in these other words of today’s Gospel: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. The reality is that if the only thing we do when we are attacked enemies is just “turn the other cheek” and become a doormat, we are not truly loving our enemies. Loves demands correction in charity. It demands we swallow our pride and do not retaliate. But it demands that we make an effort to show our enemies that we love them enough to correct them in love; and because we love them we are willing to make a stand and show them how their actions not only hurt us, but bring shame to the rest of the community, that their actions are a sin against justice, and that we are making a passive stand not out of or anger or fear but out of love for them. Only then can we say that we are following Jesus final command in today’s reading: to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father in heaven is perfect.  God bless you MBAS