Today’s gospel is a continuation of the Matthean Jesus’ teaching on the sort of righteousness, the right relationship and justice, to which his followers are called in their living of the Law. The Law of Moses included a law of retaliation designed to make punishment for wrongdoing to persons or property proportionate to the offence (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21). This was quite enlightened legislation at that time. In a series of striking images, Jesus invites his followers to go far beyond the strict application of the law and to embrace a new way of thinking about and acting towards those who injured them or us.
Relinquishing your right to compensation is one thing. Giving more of your property to one who has stolen from you is quite another. Do we take this teaching literally or do we simply embrace the spirit of non-retaliation that seems to be at the heart of this teaching? A too-easy amnesty does not always bring justice. Last week’s gospel reminded us that there is to be no place for uncontrolled anger or murderous thoughts in our hearts. Both that teaching and this seem to be about taking responsibility for how we live. Harbouring anger can have disastrous consequences for oneself as well as for others. It tends to become a state of being and skew our capacity for right judgement. What happens to us may be beyond our control. What we do with what comes our way is for us to decide. Jesus makes it clear that we have choices in the face of life’s struggles. The disciple is called to assume personal responsibility and to refuse the way of retaliation.
The final example or antithesis in the list of six that Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount is the most confronting of all: there are to be no limitations on love. Loving one’s enemies is quite a challenge, on a personal as well as a global level. We learn the hard way that we cannot change others. We can only change our attitudes and our approaches to those who harm us in any way. Catherine McAuley, the first Sister of Mercy, wrote that her sisters “never let the sun go down on their anger”. I used to wonder how they managed that. Over recent years I have found that praying quite deliberately for those who give us a hard time or cause us grief is by far the most effective way of retaining my own peace of mind and of expelling retaliatory thoughts. For me, it is a matter of gently bringing these people to mind, of breathing in the loving kindness or chesed of God that suffuses the universe and of breathing it out to them. Such prayer enables me to think of them in kindly ways and act towards them without rancour, even when these sentiments are not reciprocated.