Matthew 5:38-48
Love Your Enemies
by Rev. Jerome A. Magat
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye ad a tooth for a tooth.  But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.  When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.  If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.  Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles.  Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just  and the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?  Do not the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that?  Do not the pagans do the same?  So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This week's Gospel passage reveals Jesus' understanding of what was a novel concept and imperative for His hearers: to love your enemies.  The examples that Our Lord uses to illustrate this point are more complex than one might first assume.

When Our Lord says that we should offer our left cheek when we are struck on the right cheek, He issues this imperative with a Jewish understanding in mind.  The only way a right-handed Jew could strike you on the right cheek was if he used his backhand to hit you.  Jewish rabbinical law states that to hit a man with the back of the hand was reserved for slaves and was twice as insulting as hitting a man with the flat of the hand.  Here, Our Lord is warning us against making retaliation for insults and to avoid the interior resentment within ourselves that accompany insults.

When Jesus orders us to give an adversary our cloak when he wants to go to law with us over our tunic, He was aware that every Jew, no matter how poor, owned a tunic, which was an inner garment.  Jews also carried a cloak, which served as a coat by day and a blanket by night.  In Exodus 22:26-27, the Mosaic law prohibited the taking of another man's cloak overnight, lest he freeze during the night hours.  In other words, a man's cloak could not be taken from him permanently.  Here, Our Lord tells His disciples that true believers will not consider their rights as much as they will consider their obligations and that they will think less of their privileges and more of their responsibilities.  In other words, a true disciple of Jesus Christ need not always make recourse to his rights but will be willing to forego those rights if charity demands it.

When Our Lord says that if anyone should press you into service for one mile, go for two miles, He may have had the Greek word aggareuein in mind.  This Greek word, which means "compel," is taken from the Persian version, which means "courier."  The Persian postal system was designed with a days-long journey in mind.  At the end of each stage, couriers could get provisions at a postal station.  If provisions were missing or lacking, any private person could be compelled to provide them.  Later, the word was understood to mean "forced service" and is the same word used to describe how Simon of Cyrene was compelled to help Jesus carry the cross up to Calvary.  Here, Our Lord instructs us to assist others with joy and graciousness - not to do the bare minimum.  We ought to use our liberty for service to others, not for mere caprice.  Our sense of humble deference to the needs of others will reveal the impact that our friendship with Jesus has made in our lives.

The aforementioned images have become practical clichés in common parlance.  Yet, they reveal to us the depths of what Christian love demands.  They are an introduction to the novel imperative that Jesus offers us: to love our enemies.  This sense of merciful love toward our neighbor exceeds the strict justice of Judaism and opens up for us the complete picture of what divine love really means.

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