The Gospel we read today takes us to the heart of the moral teaching of Jesus—his call to nonviolence and love of enemies. This part of the Sermon on the Mount is couched in such startling language that it has often been misunderstood. Take the sayings on nonviolence. First, consider the eye-for-an-eye rule of the Hebrew Bible (Exod 21:24, quoted in the First Reading). That was a good law. In the Ancient Near East, a common way to settle perceived injustices was unmitigated vengeance (you injure my brother's eye and I and my brothers will take out both of yours—maybe even kill you). So the Mosaic law of an eye-for-an-eye was meant to mitigate that instinct for unbridled retaliation. Moreover, Jewish legal procedure soon developed the practice of substituting financial recompense as the appropriate response to claims of personal injury—much like our practice today in the Western world.
As reasonable as that approach was, Jesus called for an even further advance against the human zest for “getting even”—which is where the famous “turn the other cheek” saying comes in. A puzzlement to most Christians, this saying has been an occasion of mockery on the part of the enemies of Christianity, as in “Why follow someone who teaches you to be a bunch of wimps and doormats?”
But that is to miss the point. We need a cultural context to catch the meaning of Jesus' example. In a mainly right-handed world, a slap across the right cheek is back-handed, and in first-century Palestine a back-handed slap was meant not so much to inflict physical injury as to dishonor the person slapped. If someone dishonored you with the demeaning back-handed slap, you were expected to reclaim your honor by responding in kind. Thus Jesus' suggestion would, in that context, be a surprising move, indicating that you simply refuse to be dishonored so easily.
The second example presents a similar ploy. The situation of someone taking someone else to court over a tunic is one of extreme oppression. After all. Exodus 22:26-27 commands: “If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset, for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body.” So the oppressor is asking for something that violates the rights of the other. When Jesus suggests handing over the cloak as well, he is saying, in effect, “When you hand over your other garment, your nakedness will expose not only your flesh but also the extent of your adversary's oppression.”
Similarly, the example of “going the extra mile” also draws from a specific social context. The usual way for Jesus' contemporaries to be “pressed into service” was when they were enlisted by one of the occupying Roman soldiers to carry his backpack for him. For obvious reasons, this situation was a constant source of hostility between the occupying forces and the local people. One could paraphrase Jesus' example this way: “Does that bug you when the Roman soldiers make you carry their baggage? Well, let me suggest an alternative to the hotile response you may be tempted to give: Carry it not just for the one mile but for two. That way, the Roman will get into trouble with his superior officer. He'd be exceeding his own Roman law, which allows him to press you into service for only one mile.”
Thus, these sayings of Jesus are not new rules, but examples of nonviolent response to oppression. Rather than actions to be imitated literally, they were examples meant to stimulate similar forms of creative nonviolence. These teachings of Jesus inspired Mahatma Gandhi to his famous salt march, exposing the oppression of British taxation. Closer to our own time and place, these teachings of Jesus led Martin Luther King, Jr., to his creative nonviolent practices of bus boycotts and restaurant sit-ins.
Taken by itself, the last line of this Sunday's Gospel can have a paralyzing effect: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The mandate is so overwhelmingly absolute, it is enough to make one crawl back into bed. How can any of us hope to be perfect as God? Few of us can even cook a good meal. But, here again, attention to context helps us get the point. Jesus is not speaking of some kind of impossible flawlessness. The previous sentences speak of the inclusiveness of the Creator's love as demonstrated in the universality of the gifts of sunshine and rain. It is precisely that quality of God's universal love that we are to imitate. Not that this is not a daunting challenge, but at least attention to the context helps us focus on the point. Those who are still hypnotized by the word "perfection" might be encouraged by Luke's version of the saying, which some scholars feel is the more original: “Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Paul's exhortation to the Corinthian community in the Second Reading provides another statement that is often badly misunderstood because people usually miss the context: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy” (Second Reading). Because people commonly recall that Paul elsewhere uses the temple image for the human body (see 1 Cor 6:19, where the topic is sexual abuse), they think this statement is about individual human bodies. But the topic here in 1 Corinthians 3 is something else entirely. Here Paul is addressing the problem of factions that are destroying the body of the community (and the “you” is plural).
Attention to the contexts of today's readings help us realize that Jesus’ challenge to nonviolence and love of enemies is profoundly challenging, but not impossible.