Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
LV 19:1-2, 17-18; PS 103:1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; 1COR 3:16-23; MT 5:38-48
The first words we hear on this Sunday are: "Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." WHAT? What does this call to holiness mean? And, how is it that God is holy? After consulting both a thesaurus and an etymological dictionary, holiness has to do with a certain reverence for life. Indeed, our God reveres all of creation, and we are challenged to do the same. In Leviticus, it comes down to the great commandment: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
In the Gospel for this Sunday, we hear Jesus expand on holiness. We mis-hear and misinterpret the phrase: "Offer no resistance to one who is evil." Barbara Reid summarizes well: Jesus is not advising his disciples to let evildoers freely abuse them; rather he directs them not to retaliate by the same means or by violent self defense. Jesus directs them to respond with an action that confronts the evildoers nonviolently, thus breaking the cycle of violence and opening up a new possibility...
In his book, Engaging the Powers, Bible scholar Walter Wink speaks of the "Third Way" of Jesus, which goes beyond our usual response to danger by fleeing or fighting:
Jesus says: "If someone strikes you on the RIGHT cheek, turn the other one as well." The only way one could naturally strike the right cheek of another would be with the back of the hand. We are dealing here with insult, not a fist fight. The intention is not to injure, but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. The only normal response would be cowering submission. Why then does Jesus counsel these humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because such an action robs the oppressor of their power to humiliate! At the time of Jesus, such a response says: "I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you."
Jesus continues to say: "If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well." Only the poorest of the poor would have nothing but a garment to give as collateral for a loan. The poor must have hated a system subjecting them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, and finally even their outer garments. Why then does Jesus counsel them to give over their undergarments as well? This would mean stripping off all of their clothing and marching out of court stark naked! This says: "Now you've got all I have except my body. Is that what you'll take next?" Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell less on the naked one than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness. Thus, without violence, the response makes a statement to the powerful.
Finally, Jesus says: "Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles." As the Roman law of the time only allowed the carrying of a soldier's pack for one mile, the response Jesus suggests puts the soldier in a dilemma, who would face punishment for excessive forced labor.
What does this "Third Way" of Jesus have to do with holiness? Jesus is always holy, always acting with reverence for life, directing us to reverence our own lives. Let us not hear Jesus' advice as accepting abuse or oppression, but responding to these with creative non-violence.
In I Corinthians, Paul also speaks about holiness: "Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" If we realize this - that God dwells in us and in every person - and act out of that realization, then indeed, we are holy.
Sallie Latkovich, CSJ
Director of Bible Study and Travel Programs
Director of Summer Institute
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