An Eye for an Eye
There he goes again. This Jesus keeps asking us to do the unreasonable, the irrational in this world. From the beginning of time we have always been taught that revenge is a duty in response to the unjust actions of another, or others against me, or my people. In many of our societies, vengeance is a part of the ethical code of our culture. Funny though, from the beginning of time, it seems that vengeance has never solved problems, or gotten real justice. In fact, it seems a matter of historical fact that vengeance has only turned problems into eternally escalating injustices. Why do we still keep leaning into and depending upon such a failed code, such a damaging ethic?
This ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ code is still very much a part of our lives. It is an Old Testament code, one that still finds its adherents in our world today, and it still creates more suffering than the hoped for justice. Jesus knew the power of this ethic for the people of his own time. What he is telling them here in this passage from Matthew would have struck them, not just as something difficult, but insane. They might have thought, ʺIf someone strikes me on the cheek, he’s going to get what he deserves in return. You can’t let someone do that to you without responding in like kind.ʺ Today, this message still strikes us as strange. Turn your other cheek to the one who has struck you? That’s nuts! Why would I want to open myself to be hurt again? Why would Jesus tell us to do something like this? What would be the good of doing such a crazy thing?
Jesus never asks us to do anything he wouldn’t do. Remember the scene when Jesus is before Annas, the high priest, after his arrest? Annas asks Jesus about his disciples and about his doctrine, Jesus responds, ʺI have spoken publicly to the world. I have always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews gather, and in secret I have said nothing. Why ask me? Ask those who heard me what I said to them. They know what I said.ʺ The temple guard struck him on the cheek then and said, ʺIs this the way you answer the high priest?ʺ and Jesus responded, ʺIf I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?ʺ
All of a sudden the wisdom of Jesus’ comment about ‘turning the cheek’ has meaning. If instead of responding with anger and revenge, which Jesus could have done. Yes, he could have gotten people’s attention with some awesome, eye-catching, demonstration of his godly power. But no, instead he simply asks the temple guard to think personally, interiorly, about why he did what he did. He, in essence, put the ball back into the guard’s court. The guard now had to think about his motives and, more importantly, about the pain he had caused to another, for no legitimate reason.
That is the divine wisdom of this message. If I simply strike back and preferably with more violence than the original injury, I may just be creating a larger problem, a spiraling increase of violence that never ends, but just keeps getting worse. On the other hand, if instead of responding with revenge, I respond, by getting the person who has committed the injustice against me to reflect on the injustice he or she has committed, and take responsibility for their injury to me, the chances are that he or she might feel the guilt for his, or her, foolishness. It might just raise in him, or her, an insightful desire to turn away from their own involvement in injustice. In this way there is the possibility of reconciliation and the potential for a more just and equal relationship based on respect for each other’s infinite human dignity.
Who could be more right, more truthful than Jesus? Yes, his message is difficult, even hard, but it is neither impossible, nor is it unreasonable. Indeed, it is the very core of reason, the very soul of wisdom.
Let us, then, practice turning the cheek. Let us pray for the grace of courage to do so. God will give us the grace. The world needs to see this wisdom in personal relationships and in those relationships between peoples and nations. Let us listen to God’s wisdom. It would be good for us and it would be good for the world.