It is with great sadness that we received news on Jan. 24, 2011, of the death of Don Samuel Ruiz, who had been bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas in southern México from 1960 to 2000. Don Samuel is well known for having empowered the indigenous people of his diocese and for his role as mediator in the conflict between the Zapatista rebels and the Mexican government in the 1990s. For this, he had received many death threats. Some years ago I had the opportunity to meet him.
In the course of our interview, I asked him how he had come to live so completely the command to love one’s enemies, when he had so many. He gave me a puzzled look and responded: “I have no enemies.” It was my turn to be puzzled, as he had arrived for the interview in a bulletproof van, accompanied by three large, armed bodyguards supplied by the Mexican government, at their insistence. He explained further, “There are some who want to make themselves enemy to me, but I have no enemies.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus instructs his disciples on how to live in just such a way. Jesus begins by quoting the law of retaliation in Lv 24:20, which puts limits on acts of retribution so as to curtail cycles of vengeance. The principle he puts forth is “do not retaliate against the evildoer” (v. 39a). In some translations, the verb here, antistenai, is rendered “offer no resistance.” But this verb most often carries the connotation of violent resistance or armed resistance in military encounters (e.g., Eph 6:13). Jesus is not advising his disciples to let evildoers freely abuse them; rather, they are not to retaliate by the same means. They are to respond with an action that confronts the evildoer nonviolently, thus breaking the cycle of violence and opening up a new possibility by which gestures of reconciliation can be reciprocated.
Jesus gives four concrete examples (vv. 39b-42). The first involves a backhanded slap intended to humiliate (only the right hand would be used to strike another). Turning the other cheek is a provocative response that robs the aggressor of the power to shame, and instead the shame falls on the perpetrator. The second concerns a debtor, who stands naked in court, handing over not only the outer cloak demanded as collateral but also the undergarments, a shocking act that places shame on the creditor (see Gn 9:20-27, where shame falls on Ham, the son of Noah, who viewed his father’s nakedness). The third instance involves a Roman soldier who has compelled a local person to carry his pack. The latter destabilizes the situation by creating a dilemma for the soldier, who would face punishment for exacting service for excessive distances. The fourth example is aimed at a person in a superior economic position. The context implies that the indebtedness is due to some injustice. The lender rectifies the situation by forgoing the demand for repayment. In each of these cases, nonviolent responses undermine enmity and open possibilities for new ways of relating. In this way the Mosiac law is fulfilled.
The last section deals with the command to love the neighbor (Lv 19:18). Nowhere in the Scriptures is there a command to hate the enemy. The question was whether one was obliged to act lovingly toward those outside the covenant community. Jesus’ answer is affirmative. Disciples are to set no bounds on their love (teleios in v. 48 connotes not moral perfection but “completeness, fullness”), just as God sets no bounds on the divine love.