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Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle A

19 February 2011

Reflecting on Matthew 5:38-48

He offered resistance to evil

You have to wonder about Jesus’ instruction to offer no resistance to one who is evil. What would have happened if Hitler had been killed during the war? Was it morally wrong for Claus von Stauffenberg (a Catholic) to enlist the aid of thousands of other Christians (including Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer) in an assassination attempt in July of 1944?  Records show that none took their resolve to break the fifth commandment lightly.  All had considered the millions still to be killed in the war and were willing to face God with their decision.

But no, the briefcase bomb was accidentally shifted and Hitler wasn’t killed. The Nazis quickly rounded up almost 5,000 conspirators and murdered them over the remaining 10 months of the war.

And yet today we hear Jesus say Turn the other cheek.  Walk the extra mile.  Hand over your cloak as well. Is there any wisdom out there to help us read this passage?  Plenty.

Here’s an interesting take on the text from Scripture scholar Walter Wink, who has written extensively on this issue.  He suggests that Jesus is offering some ingenious examples of passive resistance.

If a Roman occupier forces you to carry his weapon one mile (the limit by Roman law), then carry it two and put him in the brink for breaking the law!  If he slaps you on the cheek (a sign of his authority over you) then turn your cheek to the other side, forcing him to use his fist, which is the sign of your equality with him.

If he takes your tunic (only allowable for the day, not the night) then give him your cloak as well!  Stand naked in front of him and humiliate him in front of the guys.

What do you think of this?  How do you interpret the passage, what do you think of the assassination attempt on Hitler’s life which was instigated by believing Christians, etc.  This is a great text for conversation this week!  Jump in.

Does this passage trouble you?

What would YOU like to say about this question, or today’s readings, or any of the columns from the past year? The sacred conversations are setting a Pentecost fire! Register here today and join the conversation.

I have come to light a fire on the earth; how I wish it were already burning (Lk.12:49).

Ordinary Time - Cycle A

15 Comments to “Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle A”

  1. This scripture is very hard to understand. I know that it also must be very hard on the military when they must kill to protect others.

  2. Walter Wink’s ideas of how to interpret Jesus’ passive resistance suggestions are just that–passive resistance. Using a briefcase bomb is hardly a passive resistance modality, but one I could embrace and would be willing to “face God” with. A general rule of ethics is “the end does not justify the means”. Some ethicists even say “the end NEVER justifies the means”. Then there is the “just war” ethical justification argument. Having recalled these, what do you read/think was Claus von Stauffenberg’s, a Catholic and Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer’s ethical justification in an assassination attempt in July of 1944?

  3. Many years ago, shortly after Colorado passed the first “legal” abortion law, I was working in a hospital on the labor and delivery/nursery floor. A saline abortion had been performed and the baby was placed in stainless steel bowl and placed in the dirty utility room where the “products of delivery” were ground up in the garbage disposal. A nurse walking by heard a fain cry and realized that the “product” was alive. She rushed the “product” to the nursery where I was working at the time. Suddenly, the “product” became a tiny, tiny infant boy! At the time he was only 3 pounds (Very small in those days)To make a long story short…the doctor refused to see him, there was great discussion on what we could and could not do, the baby died and the real ethical question…should he get a toe tag?

    After viewing and participating in the 3 hours of that baby’s life, I was forced to question life down to its very basic elements. It took awhile, but in the end I realized what Jesus was saying in Matthew 5. Abortion (ALL), murder, capital punishment, eutheasia, and war have no justification! These ideas were challenged when I worked as a nurse in a prison, when friends died in Vietnam and people were masacred in Darfor.

    As usual, Jesus gave us the answer. It is forgiveness. He gave us Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. for witnesses to his ideals. He gave us a free will to choose and he taught and showed us how/to forgive. Will all of this help make me perfect? Not yet! I really don’t think I can be perfect yet. Forgiveness is a difficult virtue. I’m gonna keep on practicin’ though…Practice makes perfect!

  4. “Love your enemies and bless those who curse you” – – to this date, when I read parish bulletins, there are notices to pray for parishioners who died, for members who are sick, etc., etc., but not a single entry on praying for Al Qaeda, Bin Laden, Arab Dictators, etc. Silence is deafening.
    It marginalizes Jesus’ teaching as irrelevant. Our churches handle the directive as “homiletic hyperbole.” – – Cris

  5. I believe that Jesus displayed exactly what he meant in this passage when he asked his father to”forgive them for they know not what they do”. Jesus asks us daily to do the hard things for him. At the most basic level we need to take the hard road. It is easy to say I love you to people we know love us, but to be harassed by people, and still pray for them, that is following in our lords footsteps.
    Since the actual commandment is “Thou shalt not murder”, I chose to follow in my lords footsteps. You can murder a person figuratively, or literally, remember the tongue is one of the most vicious weapons on the planet. I, for myself, will work on my small world of infuence, and hope that I can make a difference that spreads like a ripple in a pond. One small action, addressing a larger mode.

  6. This is such a difficult scripture passage, with so very many layers… The part that always jumps out at me is,
    “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.” I am always moved by this, by the overwhelming love of God pouring forth toward all of us. And so I wonder, who will we meet in heaven? Hitler, Bonhoffer and 6 million Jews; Martin Luther King, James Earl Ray and men of the Ku Klux Klan; Gandhi and his assasin. We are all beloved children of a glorious and forgiving God. How do we make sense of that kind of love in our heads and our hearts?
    Jesus is the ultimate example of how to live, and suffer and die, in the most profound model of passive resistence in human history. He never challenged the authority of Rome or the Sanhedrin, he tried to show us a different way, a new way ~ “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
    As for the question regarding the Christian involvement in planning the assassination of Hitler, I just don’t know what I would have done if I had been given the opportunity to stop such madness. I have always held those courageous people up as incredible examples of how the Christian community was called to respond, as opposed to the Vatican, which just kept silent. Maybe the lesson lies not in the rightness or wrongness of that one decision, but rather in the acknowledgment that we are called to respond to those day-to-day injustices which ultimately lead to war, prejudice, poverty, discrimination, etc, etc, etc.
    As Anne said so beautifully, working in our small world of influence, one small action at a time, we can truly make a difference in the world.

  7. There’s something to be said for defending the innocent or those who cannot defend themselves. Hitler’s determined destruction of a people needed to be stopped. He was a charismatic leader who drew people to himself and had so many convinced of the rightness of what he was doing. Does one stand silent and passive in the face of such evil? It would have been wonderful if someone were able to capture Hitler and bring him to justice in a court of law, put him in prison for genocide and throw away the key. But that wasn’t about to happen. My ordinary method would not be murder or assassination, but what mother would not protect her child? What stronger person does not come to the defense of the weak? What righteous nation does not come to stand with another against an aggressor?
    Dietrich Bonheoffer has been a hero for me since the 80’s when I first encountered his life through a professor I had. He faced an enemy stronger than himself and in the end gave up his life. He didn’t just sit around and hope that someone else would fight the enemy. He recognized a personal responsibility to stand with those who were being attacked and annihilated. Would I conspire to assassinate? No. I don’t have the courage to face the consequences on any level. I truly believe that it was in prayer that Bonheoffer made his decision against a greater evil. I’m reminded of Judith who slew an enemy of her people, of God’s people, and of Esther who saved the Jews by finally informing Xerxes of the plot against her people. Joshua and David fought for God’s people by leading armies against other armies.
    The brutality directed toward Jesus shows us how it is possible to turn the other cheek, to stand silent when being condemned to death. Yes, it is the ideal. I also see Jesus as assertive, someone who would protect his sheep against the wolves, the children against anyone who would harm them. He stood quietly and comes across as showing passive resistance but he also was aggressive when it came to his Father’s house.

  8. Reflecting on Matthew 5:38-48 does trouble me in the sense that it depends on whose cheek gets smacked first…mine, that of a loved one or that of someone who deserves my defense. I didn’t get the feeling that Jesus was allowing us that latitude. I’m certain that in the latter two situations I would make certain the perpetrator wouldn’t be able to strike a second time, regardless of what it took to guarantee that.

    Your mention of Bonhoeffer got my attention because I’m currently reading Eric Metaxas’ book on his tragically shortened life and am about 150 pages into the 500+ pages. He is just starting to become concerned about the rise of Hitler and his Nazi hoodlums. How could anyone turn the other cheek to that brand of scum or to the warlords that dominated Japan and set the entire Pacific on flame?

    I was in my freshman year of high school when the Nazis over-ran Poland in short order. Our fortunes in the Pacific were just starting to brake their downward course when I graduated from high school. Within a week I was in a Navy uniform hoping to help further brighten those fortunes on both fronts. There were no heroic, noble aims there, just high school emotions spilling over. The angels sitting on my shoulder at the time determined I wouldn’t get to sea until after the fighting had ceased.

    As fate would continue to pull the strings, about six years later I was serving on the very ship where the WWll surrender was signed. The Navy recalled a large number of officers from the inactive reserve ranks to active duty during the Korean conflict. In my role as a fire control officer on the USS Missouri, making certain we were hitting the targets with our 5 inch and 16 inch guns was my primary job. Those targets were primarily inanimate, consisting of rail lines along the Korean coasts and military supply depots that could be reached by our guns.

    There was obvious unavoidable human injury and death involved but at the time we were concentrating on driving the Chinese off the Korean peninsula and to bring the North Koreans to their knees and out of the South Korean territory. We were very careful to keep our artillery barrages clear of obvious civilian habitation but the military personnel were of no concern. I don’t think the distinction we made in this respect would pass Jesus’ critical eye. Neither our Catholic nor Protestant chaplain made reference to that passage during our shipboard services…I had the greatest respect and admiration for both those gentlemen.

    To have lived up to his admonitions in that passage I would had to have pleaded as a conscientious objector as would every other person when the draft board came calling. I and most of the others didn’t wait for that call. It’s impossible to even visualize the turn history would have taken by turning the other cheek under the circumstances of the time. That scenario would make a very interesting story in the hands of a gifted writer such as Metaxas.

  9. Thank you all for pouring out your hearts in your comments. It’s moving to read the feeling each has offered.

    As for Walter Wink, he is wrong. If you read the tone implied in these actions, you will see them as completely inconsistent with the life of Jesus conveyed in the rest of the New Testament. Jesus is teaching humility.

    As for the assassination attempt this was a choice that brave men and women made in a terrible time in our history. And I will not judge it. Should we ask the same question of the few men who made the decision to drop 2 atomic bombs on Japan? We can never fully understand what any of these people faced.

  10. I agree with you, Chris, about Walter Wink’s interpretation…it sounds more like passive aggression. Jesus, when he had excruciating and humiliating things done to him, prayed in Luke, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In his responses to torture and abuse, he didn’t have as motivation an intention to hurt back. It seemed like he just held the truth in his heart and that gave him quiet and strength.

  11. Love. “If Just to Be is a Blessing;Just too live is Holy.” Abraham Joshua Heschel. Love your nieghbor. Jesus taught us to love one another and he means for us to love those who wrong us, hurt us, betray us and abuse us. Life is simple but it is not easy. Each and everyone of us is faced with “trials and tribulations” and in these when we seek to allow Jesus Christ to guide us, direct us and teach us, we can face evil and resist it and be protected by God. With Jesus Christ We can face our truth and learn that the “truth shall set you free”…..it is all about trusting Jesus Christ and seeking his word to find meaning in our life and to go forth in action. WE all make choices. God knows our hearts and the causes and circumstances of our life…..he calls us to love one another…..its in knowing who we are in Christ Jesus that enables us to resist evil, to turn the other cheek, to hand over your cloak and walk the extra mile. Pas con Jesus Christ

  12. I have to wonder if the Roman occupier got the message that he was being humiliated and mocked. I keep seeing Gandhi in the movie rendition, and his followers walking against their occupiers, one by one being beaten down with clubs. It was a peaceful resistance but bloody just the same. Such courage on the part of the leadership and followers.
    But I have to agree, what would have happened during World War II if those brave people hadn’t fought and even done drastic things that their souls had to live with.

  13. Brother Mourning Dove

    The challenge you’ve given us is a good one. Bonhoeffer had corresponded with Gandhi and 99% personally agreed with him in regards to his philosophy of nonviolence, especially as it is rooted in the sermon on the mount. Our problem with Jesus’ preaching is we are looking for formulas that are universally applicable for conflictual situations. “Too bad, so sad” as our teens say. If we know anything about Jesus’ lifestyle, teaching and witness, it is that he was thoroughly nonviolent, but we balk at this by accepting “Just War Theory.” This theory was taken from Aquinas, who got it from Augustine, who got it from Ambrose, who got it from Cicero who got it from ancient Roman law. It is not based on scripture or revelation but the historical Catholic Church [hierarchy] bought into it, was accultureated into it. Mostly the “just war” ideal has been abused, misused and been misunderstood as a rationale for “less violent” behavior. It opens up a larger argument, too big to map out here. But I will offer that in this world as it is, we must decide whether we will wage peace or wage war and then pay the price to make your ethical ideals real in practice. I believe that Bonhoeffer was nonviolent in principle but was willing to face the radical exception. Most people have little clue as to the discipline with which he practiced his own nonviolence. I can only wonder what I would do and pray that I am not faced with such horrible alternatives. But maybe we are being faced with similar choices today.

  14. Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” I don’t mean to contradict my earlier statement, but to add to it. When I first heard that verse, I couldn’t believe it; could it really be what He is asking? But in the whole of the Bible we are told that the Father is a forgiving God. I think this trait that I know about the Father helps me to read this verse in Matthew. I am supposed to look to God, Whom I am supposed to aspire towards, and try not to cross the line from forgiveness of self when I fail to making excuses….make sense?
    Something that someone wrote too struck me in the the heart. He wrote that he would never judge the decisions or actions of Bonhoeffer. How deeply I feel an agreement with that.
    Scripture has so many balancing truths…thou shalt not kill, but you are not to judge your neighbor, etc.
    I thank God that we are actually graced to ponder these truths and glimpse a little of Him in them.

  15. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ is telling us to not return evil with evil, injustice with injustice – but rather, to return evil and injustice with forgiveness and love. This is precisely what Jesus Christ did for us when he took our sins to the cross (he who was innocent), saying “Forgive them Father, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

    To forgive and to love in this way – to love the enemy, the one who persecutes us – is impossible for us to do with our own effort. It is only possible if we have the spirit of Christ dwelling in us. Only then can we fulfill the Sermon on the Mount, without effort, because we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.

    The spirit of Christ is a spirit that has overcome death – a spirit that has conquered death. This is a spirit that gives eternal life – that we do not die. It is this spirit that has allowed the martyrs of the Church to give their lives, going to their death singing and praising God, because they knew it was not they who were suffering and dying, but the victorious spirit of Christ dwelling in them.

    To follow Jesus Christ is to follow Him to Jerusalem, to be crucified for the salvation of the one who persecutes us. This is the way of the Servant of Yahweh (of Isaiah). This way of loving and dying is the mission of the Church – to save the world.

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