Equal in dignity: Yes, love your enemy, but not before you love yourself.
A homily for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Readings: Sir. 15:1–4, 8, 11–12, 14–20; Ps. 112; I Cor. 2:6–10; Matt 5:38–48 (Catholic Comprehensive Lectionary)
I’m excited about these texts this morning. This gospel is rabble rousing stuff. Sadly, it has been sanitized and disfigured over time to give the impression that Jesus wants us to accept our injurious plights and suffer through whatever abuse we might be experiencing. Since we are so distant from the culture and conflicts that plagued Jesus’s Judea, we don’t hear these passages with the same ear that his contemporaries would have.
If we take what Jesus says to be literal wisdom — that if someone hits us once, we should let them hit us twice, or if someone sues us, we should give them everything they ask and more — then it would seem like Jesus demands suffering and self-denial for the sake of God’s kingdom. This couldn’t be farther than the truth.
Walter Wink addressed this devastating problem in his book: Jesus and Nonviolence, A Third Way. He points out that the root of so many problems is our human tendency to see only two solutions to a conflict: fight or flight. We can live by a philosophy of retaliation, an eye-for-an-eye, or we can live a life of passivity, of letting the bad things happen to us and retreating without a fight. As Wink points out, Jesus illuminates a third way, one that bolsters our human agency and provides a way of asserting ourselves against injustices with integrity.
You may be familiar with these interpretations, but let’s review them for reflection.
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: We all know what this means. If someone slugs you, you slug them right back.
While we might presume that Jesus opposes this methodology out of holiness, in this passage, he is really reflecting concern for the safety of his people. If an authoritarian figure backhanded the average Judean, there was no such thing as safe retaliation. If a person of stature hit an average person, and the average person hit back, what do you think would have happened? What if it was a Roman officer who did the hitting? Let’s just say Jesus wasn’t the only one killed on crosses.
So let’s talk about Jesus’s teaching that “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.” In Jesus’ times, the left hand was only used for unclean tasks. Think about using the bathroom. There were actual laws that prohibited the use of the left hand. According to the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, people were forbidden from even gesturing with their left hands. They would be punished with exclusion and 10 days of penance. So, if a right-handed person hit your right cheek, the only way they could do it would be with a right-handed backhand.
In Jesus’ times, a backhand was a way of putting a person into submission. It was an authority figure admonishing another human of ‘lesser’ status. If someone punched, they were striking a blow against someone they saw as their equal.
So, what was the backhanded person supposed to do? They could risk greater problems by striking back, or they could accept the admonishment and go along with their day. But how would that feel? Some of us have certainly been in situations where someone has used their authority to shrink us. It’s very possible that has happened through acts of cruelty that include verbal and physical abuse. And it is a horrible thing to be defenseless.
Jesus isn’t advocating defenseless, though. When he says, “turn the other cheek,” he’s saying: make them hit you like an equal. Be defiant. Make them see that you know your worth, and that you’re not fooled by their arrogance. At minimum, you can hold your head high. You know they were wrong, and they know you know it, too. Hold on to your integrity.
It is the same when Jesus says, “if someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Who is being sued for coats? Jesus isn’t talking about people like us living in a litigious capitalist nation. If we ever have the great misfortune of being sued, we have to reckon with the reality in a different way because we live in a different world. But in 1st Century Judea, if someone was being sued for their coat, it was probably because it was the only collateral they had to obtain a loan, and they couldn’t repay the loan. So a wealthier person would sue to claim the coat.
When Jesus says, then give them your cloak, too, he isn’t saying, “you owe them your undergarments, too, because you proved yourself unworthy of handling money.” He’s saying, “look, I know this is a racket. I know the harm that the Roman occupation has done to our people, physically and economically. The taxes are ridiculous, and you can’t even afford the coat on your back no matter how you labor. So, if a rich person takes you to court for your coat, strip yourself naked, hand him everything, and make him feel like an ass in front of the whole court.” Put the injustice on display. And hold your head high.
And, when he says, “if someone forces you to go one mile, go the second mile also.” Again, this sounds like a penalty for martyrdom. Why do extra for anyone who is forcing your hand at something? But we also have to put this in the context of 1st Century Judea. Roman soldiers would often require poor Judeans to carry their bags. However, even soldiers had rules to follow, and they were subject to strict penalties if they required a civilian to carry their pack for more than a mile. So Jesus says, “They derailed your day, forced your labor, and you’ve got little power to fight it. So, instead, mess with them. When you hit the mile marker, keep on going.” This creates risks and uneasiness for the soldier.
Now, I have a lot of questions about these scenarios. We could all go out for coffee and discuss them for hours. But keeping in mind this context, and what follows: “love even your enemies,” what are we to do with this text?
In situations of injustice, Leah Watkiss says that Jesus demands “defiance, not compliance.” Theologian Miguel de la Torre says that Jesus offers a critical theology for the oppressed, especially those in hopeless situations. He said, they need a “theology para joder,” one that literally screws with the system. That’s what Jesus was about in these passages.
But what do these passages have to offer for our everyday lives if we are not the ones in a state of hopeless oppression?
Walter Wink suggests that we meditate on this text and others to learn the wisdom of Jesus’s third way of responding to conflict. He writes, Jesus’ third way calls us to:
“seize the moral initiative, find a creative alternative to violence, assert your own humanity and dignity as a person, meet force with ridicule or humor, break the cycle of humiliation, refuse to submit or accept the inferior position, expose the injustice of the system, take control of the power dynamic, shame the oppressor into repentance, and stand your ground.”
To follow Jesus’ lead, we probably won’t be turning our cheeks or surrendering our coats. We can, however, learn to respond to challenging situations with self-love and integrity.
We might examine our own patterns of behavior: do we tend to retreat from conflict and let others treat us poorly? Or, if someone lashes out at us, do we lash right back? Or, do we consider other options that address the problem with creativity, and assert our mutual dignity?
Do we demand equality for ourselves against those who might see us as lesser, and, harkening back to Nancy’s homily on Ruby Turpin, do we challenge our beliefs when we think of others as being less than us? How do we show up for the equality and justice of the oppressed?
I think these are the big demands of our gospel today.
What thoughts do you have?
Our community’s shared homily was rich! One congregant shared the story of St. Francis whose father angrily pursued him into the public square of Assisi and demanded repayment for all the money he had ‘squandered’ on the poor. Francis stripped naked in front of the crowd and handed his father everything that he might have ‘owed’ him. His service to and among the poor continued. Francis quite literally followed Jesus’ gospel!
Another shared in greater detail about the rule of the Roman Empire which forbade foot soldiers from ‘enslaving’ civilians. This isn’t because Rome was anti-slavery. The empire thrived on a slave economy, but for the sake of ‘peace’ prohibited its soldiers from impressing more than a mile of duty on a civilian.
And, we were reminded of the complicated subject of nakedness in the Hebrew Bible, particularly Gen 9:20–25, where the sin is not to be naked (as Noah was drunk and naked in his tent), but to observe nakedness (as Canaan did) and not restore dignity to the naked one.
What other observations or insights do you have?