Matthew 5:38-42b, Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Under normal circumstances, a right-handed person could slap somebody’s right cheek, but only if it’s a back-handed slap. Try and imagine it. Back in the Lord’s day, a back-handed slap was what superiors gave subordinates. Masters backhand-slapped slaves, for instance; commanders slapped centurions that way; and as it also happened, Romans backhand-slapped Jews. Now, what did Jesus say must a person do in such a case? “Turn the other cheek.” Now to turn the other cheek means to stand up to the aggressor and challenge him to, this time, strike you with a front-handed slap—meaning, to strike you not as a subordinate, but as an equal. Interesting, isn’t it? When you’re slapped as an equal, your aggressor better be ready to take whatever might come right back at him. But I should hasten to say that turning the other cheek did not mean measure for measure retaliation either. Turning the other cheek was a dignified protest against injustice. By freely offering the other cheek, one valiantly affirms one’s dignified status while also exposing the aggressor’s contemptible beastliness. So you see, sisters and brothers, the point to turning the other cheek was not to acquiesce to abasement or abuse. That was never the Jesus ethic. He never allowed himself to be abased. But it did entail heroic, even stately self-discipline in the face of a presumptuous and bestial aggressor.
By Roman law, Roman officers and centurions could command Jewish civilians to carry their gear, but only for one mile. There were sanctions if an officer abused this privilege. The rule itself was preposterous, of course. It served to only stress Jewish servility to the Romans. So Jesus said, if someone orders you to carry his gear for one mile, keep walking with it for longer—go another mile! Let’s see if the officer doesn’t get into trouble with the law and be de-merited for it. So you see, walking another mile did not mean being passive in the face of dishonor. It was a clever way of handling injustice.
The funniest is the third. Jewish law entitled a creditor (usually rich) to confiscate the tunic of a debtor (usually poor) when the debtor was unable to pay in cash. Again, it was a pretty ruthless law that favored the rich. Now Jesus said, if a creditor goes to court to sue you for your tunic, give him your cloak, too. Well, these two pieces of clothing were about the only pieces of clothing poor peasants wore. So to give both tunic and cloak to the creditor meant to strip naked…in court. The public nudity would then bring shame on the unforgiving creditor. A pretty clever way of handling mercilessness!
Jesus never taught abasement. He never meant for his followers to passively swallow cruelty and insult, and say, “This is what I, your Lord & your God, suffered through, so do the same. I want you, especially you Filipinos, I want your spirituality to be only Good Friday spirituality.” Well no. Submitting to cruelty does not make one holy. It makes one a dishrag and that’s an insult to God who created us with dignity. Secondly, our passivity emboldens the oppressor to sin, to sin even more, and to remain in sin. So allowing the sin to be committed on us makes us, strangely enough, accessory to the sin.
But on the other hand, Jesus doesn’t want us to do eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth either. To make full use of our educated brains, our competent faculties, our gospel-informed will especially in the face of grievance, that’s what he wants us to do—to engage our whole person, in other words, and not just our bruised egos or our wounded hearts. That’s why we must also expose the injustice mindfully, and stand up for what is true, but as much as we can, to not sin; not even if we cannot help being angry…
…Because there is fair anger, there is righteous anger. But then, there is also consuming anger, vengeful anger, rage. I’ve felt it in myself and seen it in other people, that dwelling on anger and feeding anger and soaking in anger—it really damages us more than the persons we happen to hate. Our rage might burn our “enemies”, sure; but only so far. Our rage burns us further and deeper. It makes us ugly. I’ve met people, priests included, who clearly feel very gratified when venting rage—whether physically, verbally, or, as Filipinos usually do, passive-aggressively (silent treatment is the favorite Filipino passive aggression, isn’t it?) And I’ve noticed that when we taste sweetness when venting rage, then poison has leaked into our hearts, into our souls. The poison of rage tricks us into thinking how powerful and intelligent and superior we are! But that’s just an illusion. It’s the poison that’s begun to ruin us and make us ugly. We have symbols of this in literature—people who confuse power with consuming anger, and have since been disfigured by the poison: Gollum and Saruman, in The Lord of the Rings; Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, Star Wars; Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter; the Joker, Batman; and all the rest. I’m sure you also know real people “uglified” by rage, but we won’t mention names. Baka matukhang tayo. “Anger is an acid that does more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Well said, Mark Twain.
I’m very sure there were times when Jesus himself came terribly close to the line that parted righteous anger and rage. But he didn’t cross it. That’s why he tells us today: “Don’t. Don’t cross it. Take a deep breath…many deep breaths, because this is the kind of ‘cross’ you should not do.” We are fortunate to belong to a faith where we believe that: “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he requite us according to our crimes. He pardons all our sins, heals all our ills. He saves our lives from destruction,” and on top of all that, “crowns us with kindness and compassion.”