|Date:||February 18-19, 2023, Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A|
I assume that even if you didn't watch the Superbowl last week, you heard in the news that this was the first Superbowl that had brothers playing on the opposing teams: Travis and Jason Kelce. All the news teams were sure to zero in on them after the game and their hugging one another and Travis' older brother congratulating him even though Jason had lost made a number of the news reports. At least some of the stories explicitly pointed out that, despite all the hype about the Superbowl, the most important thing is loving one another because in every case, the other is human being, a child of God, and our brother or sister at the most fundamental level.
I would suggest that this is exactly what Jesus is trying to get across to us in today's very familiar Gospel passage.
The Gospels give us a great variety of encounters that could be seen as contentious between Jesus and various groups, many of which have more authority or power in the world than he does. The world would teach us that what we need to do is go gather more authority or power, but Jesus shows us there is another way.
From how he responds to the crowd ready to stone the woman caught in adultery, to Zacceus who is wealthy but despised by his own people, to the three scenarios Jesus talks about in today's Gospel, what Jesus does is bring to the forefront the humanity of those involved, the common personhood we all share. Jesus commands us to love one another, even our enemy because the reality is that every 'other' is also our brother or sister.
As hard as it is to love even our enemy, it is even harder to understand and to put into practice the teaching Jesus gives us for when we are on the other side of the power, when we are the slave, or the conquered, or the oppressed. How is there any good in turning the other cheek, in giving our coat to someone who robs us of our shirt? Is Jesus saying we need to be doormats? How does this stop the violence? No Jesus is not telling us to be doormats. To understand this, we have to look carefully at these sayings as well as know something about the laws and customs of the time. Jesus says, "When someone hits you on your right cheek, turn the other one". How does someone (who is right handed) have to hit some one on the right cheek? With the back of the hand. Who do you hit with the back of the hand. An equal - no; a slave or someone not worth the bother. To turn the other cheek is to make the other person remember that you are a person. If they want to punish you, they must hit you as an equal, not treat you as a slave.
And what about the coat thing. In Jewish law, it was a serious crime to make another naked in public by taking their clothes for any reason. By offering the coat as well as the shirt, you would put the other in the position of committing that crime. So the action is meant to force the other person to regard you as a real person not as some object. And then Jesus says if someone presses you into service for a mile, walk a second mile. Roman law said that a soldier could press a Jew (or any inhabitant of one of the occupied countries) into service for only one mile. Any more and they would be breaking Roman law. By walking the second mile, you would be forcing the Roman to acknowledge that you are a person with the power to put him in violation of the law, not just some conquered slave.
So Jesus’ message is clear and simple. In everything you do, remember that the other one is a real person, a child of God. Then when you have the power, you will use it wisely. When you are the oppressed, instead of reacting with violence that begets violence, act in such a way as to make your personhood clear. Some people might think this is just an impractical ideal. But that is the way that Ghandi led India out of slavery, the way that Martin Luther King broke the stranglehold of discrimination in our country, the way the Polish trade union movement brought down the communist oppression in Poland. It is the truth that lays bare the lie that violence can solve anything. Jesus lived this way to the cross where he hangs as a stark reminder that whenever we do violence to another, we are doing it to God.
How would our lives be different if we followed Jesus's example of focusing on the person or persons in front of us in situations of conflict? And of course it is not only for conflict. How would we receive communion if we really focused at who it is we are receiving rather than what? If we really understand that we are encountering not just a human person but one who is divine as well?
And for those of us who have been baptized, by that baptism we are called not just to live our lives out of this truth but to speak it, to proclaim it as well, to follow Jesus in putting it into the spotlight. And by doing so we are helping everyone be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.