Mt  5.38-48                      Lev 19.1-2, 17-18            1Cor 3.16-23

Finally, we come to the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, the height of Jesus’ moral teaching.  The tough stuff, or the hard yards or metres are here in the command to love all, including enemies, which we would have to admit, is a tall order, especially when enemies are implacably opposed to us and recalcitrant in not wanting to admit fault or stand down from hostilities.

Perhaps the war in Ukraine can be seen as a good case in point.  Just where does one draw the line at not standing up to unjustified aggression and violence?  Most would agree that Ukraine has every right to defend itself, and to seek means of doing just that, in order to protect its people.  And yet the terrible, horrific destruction goes on, of life, homes and infrastructure, but to what end?  Doesn’t our world have more than enough suffering through natural disasters, as we’ve seen in the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria?  It’s a complicated world in which we find ourselves.

The law outlined in Leviticus today gives a kick start to Jesus broadening and deepening the law, according to God’s will, that we not be vengeful, moving to loving our neighbour, to being fair and just in our dealings with others, welcoming to the stranger and look after and respect the seniors among us (of whom I can claim to be one at this stage of my life!).

Well, what’s in today’s Gospel for you and me?  It sums up the higher values Jesus proclaims, as the new Lawgiver, amplifying the Law of Moses, and going far beyond the basics of the 10 Commandments, and the further 603 rabbinic laws which had evolved in the interim centuries prior to Jesus’ time.

The Jerome Biblical Commentary outlines the development of law from earliest times, where the lex talionis, the first law to tone down unlimited revenge, was known as ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, such that it wasn’t right to get even by doing more damage than was done to a person, as in not taking 2 eyes or more teeth, or destroying the whole village where an offender might be.  And who was it who said: “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”, attributed to Gandhi, but more generally, quoting from the 1964 play, then 1971 film, the musical Fiddler on the Roof:  First Man says: “We should  defend ourselves. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Tevye responds: “Very good. And that way, the whole world will be blind and toothless.”

The next stage was seen as getting more civilized, described as the ‘silver rule’, where “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you”, then taking it further, and which applies in most of the major religions of the world, the ‘golden rule’ is summed up as going beyond  “Do unto others as you would wish them to do to you”, to “reaching out to do good and taking the initiative to create an atmosphere of good will.”  Now that’s certainly not beyond our capacity, is it?

But Jesus doesn’t stop there, as he encourages an attitude of love for enemies, in the hope that they might come around to being amenable to adopting more positive attitudes and less aggressive behaviour towards those with whom they are in conflict.

Some classic examples stand out in the time since Jesus proclaimed this precarious position could be seen to be Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy in action of ‘non-violent non-co-operation’, in opposition to colonial exploitation and defence of freedom and justice.  Then there is  Martin Luther King with his freedom marches and his encouragement of peaceful but powerful protests against racism and injustice.  In South Africa, Nelson Mandela ended up taking the same track, with his 10,000 days (around 27 years of imprisonment, much of it in solitary confinement, an added darkness!).  What has always struck me is how he emerged from incarceration (around my current age),  with no apparent bitterness nor desire for recrimination against his oppressors, but rather with a determination not to impose the same experience onto those who had been his enemies.

It might sound like an unrealistic ideal to love enemies, but there are strategies to achieve this end, but at least letting go of hatred and violence, leading by example. It’s certainly much easier said than done, particularly in this imperfect and fragile world, with us (is it we?) defectible people as part of it, again, with human nature being what it is for all of us.

Scripture scholar Raymond Brown speaks of this passage as “The ethics of the new lawgiver”, with its implicit christology: “The Matthean Jesus presents God’s demand, not by dispensing with the Law, but by asking for a deeper observance that gets to the reason why the demands were formulated – “to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  For Matthew, Jesus speaks with more confidence than any other 1st century rabbi, more authoritative than Moses, laying down  his new Law of Love, which sounds lovely, but, of course, in practice, is so much more difficult to apply and live by.

So, here we are, trying our best most of the time, but aware we will never quite match the lofty ideals Jesus sets for us his disciples along our path of life, with all it potholes and twists and turns.

As Brendan Byrne SJ says: Jesus’ “fulfilment of the Law brings out its radical depth”, going far beyond the mere written prescriptions or edicts.

The call to love is once again at the heart of it all. It’s for us to put it into action in all of the challenging circumstances of our lives.

john hannon                                                                                    19th  February  2023

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