Today we receive the fifth antithesis, in which, Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil” (Mk 5:38-39). The Mosaic law, an eye for an eye, that Jesus first addressed was originally an attempt to curb the emotive response of revenge. If someone had killed a clan or tribal member, there would have been those who would choose to retaliate by inflicting as much carnage as possible to the people responsible, even up to and including the death of the whole clan or tribe, even the women and children. The rationale behind this was that there would then be no one to come back for revenge. The idea of seeking instead an eye for an eye was to temper the retribution to a more measured response.
Jesus though is saying that “an eye for an eye” does not go far enough, and raises the challenge of being his disciple to a higher level, being that even the thought of revenge is not to be considered. Jesus is not just seeking to lessen the cycle of violence, he is giving us the means to end it. Forgiveness is the cornerstone of the teachings of Jesus. Instead of seeking revenge, Jesus is commanding that we seek to forgive those who have harmed us. We who pray the Our Father or the Lord’s prayer, are to take to heart and be mindful of the words we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.“
The urge for revenge is powerful and primal. Revenge is wired into our survival instinct to protect ourselves. Jesus invites us to grow beyond our mere instinctual responses and survival instincts. He is calling us to be a people who do not merely survive, but thrive. Jesus is seeking to infuse us with his divine life so that we will be transformed. This is true not only for ourselves but for those who would seek to do us harm. Instead of striking back with revenge, we are to be flexible and adept enough to instead appeal to their conscience. We are to take all that others throw at us, and meet them with the courage to stand and receive their worst, and disarm them with the blinding light of the love and forgiveness of Jesus.
This is no easy task, especially when we experience ongoing injustice and needless loss of life. To put into practice such teachings as the turning of the other cheek, we need to start small. We need to resist the immediate thoughts of revenge that arise for the smallest of offenses. When someone makes a snide remark, and/or offers demeaning or dehumanizing comments directed at us or others, we are to resist retaliating in kind. Although, we are to hold them accountable by reminding the person of our dignity and/or the dignity of the person they seek to demean. By not adding more fuel to the fire, our hope is to lead them away from the perception of another person as being somehow other, to one of being a brother or sister.
To be a disciple of Jesus means we need to be contemplatives in action especially in today’s current climate of division. We need to ground ourselves in prayer, return to these challenging teachings of the Beatitudes and antitheses often, believe in them, meditate on them, keep them at the forefront of our mind and, with the courage and guidance of the Holy Spirit, put them into practice. We will best be able to do so when we resist reactionary responses and see people, not as cardboard cutouts but in their complexity. In seeking to understand and being willing to engage in dialogue we might be better able to move together in a way to bring about accountability, reconciliation, and structural change.
Some would say this is naive and impossible. It is true that we will not be able to resist thoughts and acts of revenge and walk the path of forgiveness on our willpower alone. We need to surrender our ego and pride to Jesus, who as the Son of God became one with us so that we can be one with him. As we do so, he will begin to transform us as he forgives and loves in and through us.
Photo: A peaceful moment on the grounds of St Peter