Matthew 5:38-48
Holy and Perfect
by Rev. William P. Sanders

Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye ad a tooth for a tooth.  But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.  When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.  If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.  Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles.  Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just  and the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?  Do not the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that?  Do not the pagans do the same?  So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We continue our journey through the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s review. Our Lord has taught the beatitudes, those right attitudes of being. If we live the beatitudes, Jesus declares, “You are the light of the world, and the salt of the earth.” This statement is not just declarative but imperative: Live the beatitudes, be the salt, and be the light of the world. With that, Jesus addressed six precepts of the law: The law was meant to be lived not just by the letter, but by the spirit; not written only on stone tablets but on one’s heart. Our Lord calls us to a higher standard.

So last week, Jesus addressed four precepts of the law. Remember, he taught one can kill not only physically, but also verbally, for example through slander; one can commit adultery not only physically, but also, spiritually, for example through immodest dress or bad pictures; marriage is not simply a contract, but a covenant, a sacrament, between a man and woman as two equal partners; and lastly, a person must be true to his word.

This week, we examine two more precepts, not precepts of the Torah but more conventional, common practices. The underlying questions are, “How do I deal with injustices? How do I treat my enemy or even those with whom I disagree?” Injustices occur. Life is not always fair. Sometimes there is no redress for the injustice that we suffer. Yet, as our Lord teaches that we must not fall into hatred and retaliation,  we must rise above the injustice and do what is right in the eyes of God. In all, we must maintain charity, even for our enemy.

Our Lord gives three examples, which are difficult to understand without their historical context. At the time of Jesus, to slap someone on the right cheek was the greatest insult. To do so meant slapping the person with the back of the right hand. The right hand was to be used always for good: for example, one held the Passover Kiddush cup with the right hand; the scribes wrote with the right hand and from right to left; and one covered the eyes with the right hand when praying the Shema: “Love God with your whole heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” For some reason, the left hand was linked with doing evil; hence in Latin, the word for “left” is sinister. (As a left-handed person, I take umbrage to this mentality.) So when our Lord says, give the other cheek, i.e. the left cheek, he is saying, “Stand your ground. Challenge the person to demonstrate how sinister and how unjust he is. Make the person consider his unjust action. Do not lower yourself and lose your identity, but be just and charitable.”

Jesus continues, “If someone sues you for your tunic, maybe because of a debt you owe, and takes you to the Roman court to stand before a pagan judge, and swear in front of a false idol like Caesar or Minerva, let him take your cloak as well.” Again our Lord is teaching, “Do not lower yourself and lose your identity, but be just and charitable.”

Jesus then speaks of being pressed into service. The Roman soldiers could press anyone into service at any time, just as Simon Cyrene was forced to help Jesus carry the cross. Being pressed into service, one could easily be filled with hatred and vengeful thoughts. Again our Lord is teaching, “Do not lower yourself and lose your identity, but be just and charitable.”

When we think of these unjust situations, they are all external attacks. We must not allow them to penetrate our souls and fill us with thoughts of retaliation or vengeance, or be consumed with resentment and hatred. Consider: If we allowed ourselves to let this happen, we would become a slave; whereas if we do not lower ourselves, keep our dignity, and are just and charitable, we remain free. The Christian has to rise above the situation and live by a higher standard. For only justice will correct injustice; only charity will conquer hatred. As St. Paul said, “Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (Rom 12:21).

In conclusion, Jesus said, “Be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect,” clearly echoing what God had spoken to Moses, “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lu 19:2). By His grace, we strive to be holy and to be perfect. In so doing, we will have beatitude, now and in heaven.

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