You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:38-48
Every now and then I notice that the same subjects keep coming up in my reading, study, conversations and even thoughts. Sometimes I realize what’s happening, sometimes it takes a while for it to sink in, but when it does, I seem to notice a little something-or-other being very catlike and stretching up with claws ever-so-subtly digging into my leg in a very blatant appeal, “PAY ATTENTION TO ME!” Reading this passage from Matthew gave me that feeling, so now to disentangle the claws and see what needs attention.
Jesus taught a lot of lessons in this one passage that we have today. First of all is the reiteration of an eye for an eye which says the punishment for crime or offense can only equal the offense itself, no more. It was an improvement over murdering someone for stealing a piece of bread. Jesus, though, took it one step further. In one of his “[B]ut I say to you” statements, Jesus spoke of a new twist: turn the other cheek, don’t fight back, walk away. It’d hard advice to hear, even harder to do, but Jesus never promised it would be easy. That “But I say to you” was his way of pointing out where he differed from the usual teachings, where he was presenting his Father’s will.
The second part is about loving your neighbor as yourself. Most of us struggle with that particular verse and concept because we know how hard it is, probably one of the most difficult things a person can ever do. Who wants to love somebody that has damaged or hurt them or even taken everything from them? But that’s were told to do and that’s what we have. Jesus gets really specific, though, and puts an even finer point on it. Jews were the chosen people of God but if they only paid attention to or loved those like themselves, they were no different than the people they looked down on, people like the collaborating tax collectors or the Gentiles.
When it comes to greeting only brothers and sisters, he notes that others do that just as many Jews did, namely sticking to their own folk. Jesus’ world wasn’t populated with just Jews; it was a multicultural place on a major trade route and a part, albeit remote, of the Roman Empire. There was a tendency for groups to stick together against outsiders but Jesus wasn’t having that. If Jews only spoke to Jews, they were no different than Gentiles who did the same thing. He himself crossed many cultural barriers during his ministry, talking to, teaching and healing Samaritans, the Gerasene demoniac, a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, the servant of a Roman centurion and the list goes on. He stretched the boundaries between people, even when it scandalized his disciples and others. He greeted the world and tried to teach us to do the same, as difficult as it might be sometimes.
This passage encourages me to not just sit comfortably in my own faith in my own community in my own country and think that the rest of the world can get along very happily without my interest or participation. Jesus took an interest in people he culturally shouldn’t have and the difference it made in the lives of others was significant. Maybe the words and deeds of that one Jewish man didn’t shake the bars of the rest of the world, but in his area it certainly did. It was enough to attract the religious powers, even the governing powers, and eventually lead to his death. But in the period of his ministry, he definitely made an impact on more than just Galilean or Judean Jews.
Sometimes all it takes to reach across barriers is just a little conversation, a dialog perhaps. Maybe I can’t do much to change the world but maybe I can help put a small crack in the walls of insularity. Jesus opened more than a few cracks, so I have a great example to follow. Sometimes I have to join or even start a conversation, cross an unseen barrier or even just revise my way of thinking to make a difference not just in my own life but in that of the world around me.
That’s something to take with me this week and keep in the back of my mind. I need to look for ways I can contribute to the world and the world’s dialogs without trying to change others’ minds or forcing my own opinions or beliefs on them. Encouragement works a whole lot better than coercion, and I need to leave room for God to work.
I just have to pay attention and then act.