Jesus reminded his Jewish followers that God had chosen them to be a people through whom he would show the world just what he was like. They were to do this by watching and imitating God. They weren’t chosen because they were his favorites. They were chosen for service.
They were chosen to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Through them, God was going to bless everybody, and here was Jesus really opening this up in his own person. By teaching all who would listen, that they mustn’t respond to bad treatment with more of the same, because that wasn’t the way of the God who wanted to reveal himself to the whole world, through them.
The Jewish people knew all about being treated unfairly by their many enemies. Their history is soaked in oppression; it must have been almost unbearable to have been occupied by nation after nation of foreigners who’d conquered them. They knew all about being treated harshly. They’d been conquered in war; taken into exile. Imprisoned, taxed, tortured and killed. And the Roman occupation at the time of Jesus was just another in a long line.
On top of all this there were divisions within Jewish society itself. Just like the way in which we can see our own society divided. A few people were very rich, often at the expense of ordinary folk , most of whom were poor; some, very poor indeed.
The justice system, which we can read about in the Old Testament, and to which Jesus refers in our passage today, and expands in Mathews version of the same account ,was designed so that revenge didn’t run away into escalating violence.
“An eye for an eye” might seem harsh to us, but it was a lot less harsh than the blood feuds which were so common in the Middle East, and which we can still see in Muslim communities today, which often turn a blind eye to vengeance in the name of “family honour.”
And so it can help us to see that what we might consider to be permission to meet violence with violence was really an attempt to keep violence in control by setting strong limits to revenge.
Jesus, took this seed of God’s word, and grew it up into the plant which it contained. The plant which would show very clearly, the astonishingly patient love of God. The God who wanted Israel to reflect his patient and gentle love into the world in which they lived.
The examples which he gave, might seem strange to us , but they were very real instances of the kind of thing which was common place in the time of Jesus.
We don’t insult someone by hitting them on the right cheek with the back of our right hand. But this was a pretty standard way of insulting someone 2000 years ago. Modern soldiers don’t order civilians to carry their packs, but this was a standard procedure for the Roman Army.
So we need to see these illustrations as little examples designed to give us the general idea. We need to think our own situations through like this. What would we need to do in order to reflect God’s generous love into our world despite the pressure and the provocation which we may be facing? How should we behave in spite of our own anger and frustration?
And when we’ve worked out the answers and try to live by them, we’ll fail time after time. All of our good intentions and our fresh starts will seem to evaporate with the rising sun.
But when we feel like this, we should remember the good news was that Jesus didn’t just talk about all of this. He did it himself. When he was mocked, he didn’t respond. When he was challenged he often replied with humorous stories which forced his opponents to think again. When he was struck, he took the pain. When he was nailed to the cross, he prayed for his executioners.
The Sermon on the Mount, of which this passage is a part, isn’t just about how to behave. It’s about discovering the living God in the loving and dying Jesus.
And when we begin to make that discovery then we can begin to learn how to reflect that love in our own lives, into a world that needs it so badly. Yes, this will take time, and yes, we shall often fail. But we have no reason to despair.
Everything that’s necessary has been done. We know how we need to respond, and it’s really very simple.
As we believe on the Lord, his Holy Spirit takes possession of us and changes us into images of Jesus.
This transformation of us into Christ is called sanctification, and it’s going on in us often at a level of which we are not always aware.
But it is taking place, sometimes very quickly, and sometimes very slowly. Please believe this, and draw comfort. Especially if a part of what you’ve heard today makes you feel uncomfortable.
Yes, of course we need all the help that we can get. We need the presence of Jesus in each other. We need to meet him in his Holy Word and in the sacraments of the Church. We need to be constantly reminded through the sacrament of reconciliation, so sadly almost forgotten now, that God loves us despite our failures.
But when we do allow him to serve us like this; as he’s formed in us, so do we begin to think, talk and act like him. And then, we too will learn to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us.