Br. Josép R. Martínez-Cubero,OHC
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany - Sunday, February 19, 2017
|Br. Josép R. Martínez-Cubero, OHC|
Today’s gospel, which is a continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, contains several statements that could be seriously misunderstood if taken out of their cultural context, and if the translation is not carefully analyzed. So let us look at some of these statements.
“Do not resist an evil doer.” Considering that Jesus resisted evil every time he came face to face with it, we can feel a bit suspicious about this translation. The late North American biblical scholar and theologian, Walter Wink, made a case that the Greek word translated as resist, antistenai, has to do with violence. He notes its repeated use in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) as a word for "warfare." Likewise, it appears in Ephesians in a context of warfare (6:13). Josephus, writing in the time of Jesus, continually uses antistenai to mean armed struggle.
Therefore, the sentence should be translated: "Do not violently resist the evil one." This is entirely consistent with the over-all sense of the text, especially as Jesus then gives some examples of how to resist evil non-violently. It is important to remember that Jesus gives examples that make sense within his own culture.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” People in ancient times did not initiate action with their left hand because it was considered unclean. If they were going to strike someone, they would do so with their right hand. The only way to strike another person on their right cheek with the right hand is by backhanding the person. This was considered an insult, and an expression of dominance. In the first century, the people most likely to be backhanded were slaves, women, children, and people considered "lesser" than their Roman overlords. Jesus does not counsel passivity in the face of insult. On the contrary, he suggests lifting up your head and exposing the left cheek as well. Slapping someone with the palm of the right hand on the left cheek put the receiver on equal stature. Jesus suggests to stand there with head held high, and not letting someone else define you as "lesser." We wouldn’t endorse putting up with this kind of physical violence today, but in the context of that culture it points to staying true to one’s integrity.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” In ancient Greek culture and philosophy there are four main words that define love. Storge means affection such as the love of family. Phileo means friendship; the kind of love that develops between people who share common interests, beliefs or activities. Eros means romantic love, which includes the desire for emotional as well as physical connection. And then there is agape: unconditional, self-less love, which C.S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves, described as a specifically Christian virtue.
Agape is the love about which Jesus is speaking when he calls us to love our enemies. More than just a feeling, agape also involves actions. It is our choice of one set of behaviors over another. Agape is intentional. Whenever we choose a response that is bigger than the treatment we receive, we are being true to our identity in Christ. And we pray for those who want to do us harm not as if God were some grand-puppeteer in the sky whose mind we can change, and so that God will intervene on our behalf. We pray because prayer changes us. The act of prayer has the power to make us more compassionate even toward those we experience as our enemies.
We can begin to practice agape with our closest relationships, with the agape we ourselves have experienced, and then, we work outwards to others. Dr. Maya Angelou often talked of the African-American nineteenth century song that goes like this: “When it looked like the sun would not shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.” She spoke about having had many clouds in her sky, but there were also the rainbows. When she had to stand up on stage, or teach classes, or direct movies, she would bring in her heart everyone who had ever been kind to her, even if they were long dead. Like Maya Angelou, we have all had times when it looked like the sun would not shine anymore, but I would dare say that we all here today have also had rainbows in our clouds, people who have shown us kindness and compassion, even when we least expected it or even when we did not earn it. And we can carry those rainbows in our heart wherever we go and spread them. We can choose behavior that does not retaliate, even if we still feel anger. We can look to affirm what is good rather than focusing only on what still needs work. When, in his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. (1 Cor. 13:1-6), he was speaking of the practice of agape.
Brother Phap Dung, a Buddhist monk at Plum Village in southern France, points out that people we perceive as our greatest enemies can be our greatest teachers because we have elements of those enemies in us. And in fact, we cannot practice affirmative compassion and unconditional love toward others until we can treat with agape those parts of ourselves that we cast out as undesirable or shameful. When we witness vulgar self-absorption we are invited to examine our own selfishness. Witnessing ignorance calls us to attend to our own blind spots. Witnessing fears being stirred up, and the promotion of isolation can stimulate us to be braver, and more generous. The practice of agape is a different orientation of the heart from everything we are hearing around us these days. It is a life long spiritual journey, often costly, but always transformative.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” A better translation would be: “You all, therefore, will be consummated ones (teleioi) as your Father in heaven is consummation (teleios)." The Greek word teleios means balanced, whole, complete, fully developed. Jesus is talking about becoming who God has created us to be, in every situation, without being sidetracked, and with life-giving truth as our best tool. Truth-speaking that is steady, persistent, patient and brave.
If we live our lives according to our deepest calling, and live that calling with complete integrity, and we know, not only who we are, but whose we are, we can never be victims. No matter what the powers-that-be choose to do, there is an untouchable, eternal reality at our center. That reality is love, and it is our birthright, and it cannot be ruined by human hands or denied to us by anything that comes to pass in this lifetime. ~Amen