How do you like today’s gospel reading? Jesus’ call here is so demanding that it goes beyond what’s doable, doesn’t it? What do we do with such bits of the Bible that on the one hand can be really moving and captivating but on the other hand go well beyond what’s achievable? Well, quite often we just skip them effectively; we read them or listen to them, nod our heads and then move on. In fact, we are getting rather good at selective reading of the Bible. We simply skip those bits that challenge our attitudes and habits, and happily adopt those bits that fit into our thinking. Sadly, in such a way we disarm the word of God and reduce the Scriptures to an ancient treatise, mostly irrelevant to our times. If the word of God doesn’t challenge us, what’s the point of listening to it?
Let’s take today’s gospel reading seriously. I totally agree that on the face of it Jesus’ call is highly challenging, but mainly because there are a few common misunderstandings. The first one is our understanding of ‘love’ as a mix of positive, uplifting feelings towards other people. Of course, it’s very important to ‘feel’ love. But feelings can change, whether we want it or not. If I ask you to hate me right now, how many of you can muster such a feeling towards me? Put your hands up, please. Well, more than I expected… But not everyone (yet). Why not? Because I haven’t given you reasons to hate me (yet). In the Bible ‘love’ is a relationship between two persons, based on the decision made by two parties. That decision is an act of free will. It’s great when positive emotions accompany such a decision, but those emotions don’t define love’s authenticity. In today’s gospel, Jesus calls us to love even our enemies; but he doesn’t call us to necessarily like them. In that case, those who have declared that you hate me: you probably just don’t like me – and that’s fine.
The renowned call ‘if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well’ sends shivers down the spine, but probably mostly for the wrong reasons. Actually, the entire passage in today’s gospel sounds like an open invitation to abuse and exploitation. Surely, if we adopted such an attitude many people would take advantage of us. Thankfully, Jesus left us a magnificent illustration of the practical application of this attitude. In the gospel of St John Jesus is being interrogated by the high priest. At one point, an overzealous guard finds Jesus’ answer disrespectful and hits Jesus. In response, Jesus doesn’t literally offer the other cheek but says: ‘If I said something wrong, tell everyone here what was wrong. But if what I said is right, then why do you hit me?’ (John 18:23)
Jesus in today’s gospel calls us to reject vengefulness and vindictiveness in our dealings with people. It isn’t an invitation to mindless naivety. On the contrary, such an attitude requires intelligence, acumen and sensitivity, and all that driven by charitable love. The latter is the hardest part because nobody wants to be a loser. Think about it; in every row or heated argument you have to be the winner and your opponent must lose, whatever the cost. The problem is that in such situations we don’t exchange logical, well-balanced arguments, but insults, accusations and insinuations. Only when the dust settles do we realise how much harm has been done while the benefits are meagre or none. Are you ready to lose for love’s sake? Jesus was. He was right and yet he gave up his life. On the face of it, he lost to his opponents. He lost one battle, but he won the war.
Today’s gospel is very challenging, no doubt about it. But what Jesus calls us to develop isn’t beyond our abilities. Yes, it requires some hard work on our side, but that’s why we are called Christians. Otherwise, the final words in today’s gospel can be our accusation: ‘For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not? You must, therefore, be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’