The history of discerning God’s will in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a history of moving further and further away from violence and closer and closer to a love that is all inclusive[i].  

Stretching the Objects of Our Love

Our first reading, written up to five centuries before Jesus, aims at limiting the brutality and increasing the love of those who were reading its words.  The author tells us for instance to leave some of the harvest for the poor and traveling foreigners, i.e. to moderate our greed in favor of those in need.  The author also tells us, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.”  (Leviticus 19:17)  If one believes that our moral sensibilities evolve, then we understand perhaps why the author is not asking that we love everyone.  It is impossible enough to believe that we can love everyone in our extended families, so let’s start there.  Enemies can be dealt with more severely.

Stretching Some More

Jesus, who stood in this tradition, is pushing the envelope again.  In further attempting to extend love and temper violence, Jesus offers a “third way” between being passive in the face of evil and striking back violently against the perpetrators of evil. The thing that is so striking here is how creative Jesus is.  This creativity is a clue as to how this passage has shaped world history.  (We’ll come back to its historical effect later.)

Resist Lovingly (without Violence)

An extremely important word is missing in our English translations[ii].

“Do not [violently] resist an evildoer.” (Matthew 5:39)

It can almost be a knee jerk reaction to cower into passivity or to strike back in violence.  It can take an enormous amount of creative planning to pull off a non-violent act of loving resistance.

Social Inequities

“But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Mt 5:39)

At the time of Jesus (and in our time too?), those who are higher up the chain of power have a “right” to humiliate someone of a “lower position.”  In Jesus’ day that meant a property owner, for instance, could slap a tenant farmer on the face.  Jesus says essentially, “You don’t need to fall to your knees in obeisance.  Refuse to be humiliated; no one can name you as less than.  Expose your other cheek as a way of showing that even by slapping that one too, you are not humiliated.  By interrupting the normal pattern of the culture, if even for a moment, the perpetrator will know that you are living a different reality.”  I remember once watching a woman at work who had been laid off.  She wore a big, beautiful hat (like one might wear to church) for the rest of the days she worked there, just typing away in her unbowed self. 

Economic Inequities

“…and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” (Mt. 5:40)

A rich person was able to take a poor person’s outer garment as collateral when the rich person loaned money to the poor person.  When the rich person was not paid back, he could take the poor person to court and collect the outer garment.  Jesus is essentially saying, “If he demands your outer garment, give him your undergarments as well.  Show him in front of the judge and everyone what he is doing.  Stand there without clothes and status in your simple, and yet great, status as a human being.  Perhaps your common humanity will touch the lender, whose system is making you even poorer.”  Note the point here is to longingly not violently point to a different set of values and alternative motivations for change.  The bus boycotts of Birmingham are great examples of this.  City Hall was not bombed by the oppressed.  Nor did they go passively on in the face of injustice.  They walked instead of riding the bus, thus bringing the city owned bus system to its knees.  Gandhi making salt from the sea and weaving his own clothes rather than buying these things from the British are other examples.  No violence against the British, but they were defeated anyway, while being treated like equals.

Abusive Power

“…and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” 
(Mt 5:41)

Soldiers were able to get away with abusing the population of the occupied territories—to a point.  Soldiers made Simon of Cyrene help Jesus with his cross.  “Do it because I said so!”  If they were to have whipped Simon for no reason at all several days in a row, they could have gotten in trouble for that so they wouldn’t do that.  They knew where the line was to protect their own skins.  So Jesus is essentially saying, “If a soldier says to carry his pack for a mile, walk further.  Double the distance.  This will mess up his head.  He might shift from having a domination experience to worrying about whether he is going to be the underdog here and get in trouble.  He might even wonder if instead of humiliation, you are introducing the idea of friendship.  He will in any case be able to see elements of a different system are at play.  Show him you are obeying a different set of rules.”

The Lunch Counter Sit-ins and the Marches to Selma are great examples of making a choice to do something non-violent, knowing that it will evoke a cognitive disturbance in the mind of the oppressors, eventually causing the oppressor to look in the mirror.

Tolstoy and Gandhi and King and Tutu…and You?

The great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, was greatly affected by this passage.  He spoke of the need for non-violent resistance to evil in his Letter to a Hindu, which Gandhi read while experiencing the oppressive atmosphere of segregation in South Africa.  This started a correspondence between the two.  We know how Gandhi put the truth of non-violent resistance into practice in India, love shaping the world more in the form of justice rather than violence trying to achieve justice.  Gandhi’s actions greatly influenced the decisions and behavior of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the US, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.  Systems of oppression have fallen when these principles have been employed.

Communal Action

We can do this.  And like the examples given above, it is more effective and more creative when it is a group thinking through the appropriate actions to be done.  At a recent Call to Action conference (a Roman Catholic reform organization), someone called for a gathering of priests to meet.  It’s largely a lay organization, so perhaps the priests wanted to gather and ask how they could be helpful with the reform agenda.  Well, some “Roman Catholic Womenpriests” showed up at the meeting.  This was not what the male priests were expecting; but since the event was listed as a “gathering of priests,” the women decided this was an opportunity to shift consciousness and still stay in a place of dignity and love. 

When we become aware of injustice, we have this choice.  Do we remain passive and do nothing?  Do we clobber the offender with a cudgel or blow up their office?  Or do we think through how to creatively, lovingly shift the perspective and motivations of the evil-doer? Our choice! 

Sts. Clare & Francis
February 23, 2014
Seventh Sunday of the Year 
Leviticus 19:1-18 [somewhat focused upon]
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Matthew 5:38-48 [main focus text]
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Anna Fischer on

[i] This is NOT to say that the OT (or the Jewish faith) is less about love than the NT.  It is just to say that there is a kind of growth of consciousness that can be seen over time.  There are certainly passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that point to universal love of humankind. 

[ii] I am using Warren Carter’s analysis and insights about this text.