Jesus sets high standards for his followers. He calls on them to be perfect and to love as God loves. Is Jesus setting unattainable goals? Yes and no. As in last Sunday’s readings, today’s Gospel comes from the Sermon on the Mount. This Sunday, the focus is on retaliation and the treatment of enemies.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Lv 19:18)
How can I work toward reconciliation instead of
What can I do to live out agape (divine love)?
What can I do to emulate God?
Matthew depicts Jesus critiquing “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Mt 5:38, see Ex 21:23-25, Lv 24:20, Dt 19:21) and instead calling for his followers to “turn the other cheek.” Jesus seems to endorse passivity and submissiveness rather than vengeance. Ancient and modern audiences have almost opposite interpretations of the original command, though both would be likely to reject Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek. In antiquity, “an eye for an eye” was a call for moderation in punishment. It might be better understood as “only an eye for an eye.” This law limited retaliation; it should be in proportion to the crime being punished. In modern idiom, however, “an eye for an eye” serves as a rationale for harsh sentences and an invitation for retaliation. It has unfortunately been used to justify capital punishment, though it was originally intended as a law of restraint.
Jesus’ apparently passive responses have a message for both ancient and modern readers. By telling his followers to turn the other cheek, Jesus calls on them to resist tendencies toward punishment. Implicitly, Jesus introduces the idea of reconciliation rather than retaliation. Jesus does not want his followers to be abused and taken advantage of, as the passage might suggest. When Jesus says, “Offer no resistance to one who is evil” (Mt 5:39), he does not mean do nothing in the face of injustice. Instead, Jesus insists that his community reject and work against retaliation by focusing on love, an idea that he continues to develop in the following verses.
As the Gospel continues, Jesus refers to a law that says, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Mt 5:43). There is no known Jewish law that calls for hatred of enemies, and hating enemies is only rarely encouraged (e.g., Ps 139:19-22). Jesus insists that his followers focus less on hatred and more on love (Greek agape). There are multiple words for love in Greek (e.g., philia, brotherly love; eros, sexual love). This passage calls for agape (divine love), a term that expresses God’s unconditional love. Jesus compels his community of believers to treat all people with Godly love.
Jesus’ interpretations of Scripture in the Sermon on the Mount are rooted in the first reading from Leviticus, which similarly advocates love over hate. The law insists, “You shall not hate…take no vengeance and cherish no grudge” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lv 19:17-18). By loving all people, even enemies, Jesus’ followers can “be perfect” as the Father is perfect (Mt 5:48).
What does Jesus mean when he calls for perfection? The call to be perfect is a call to strive to be like God. On this topic, the first reading calls for people to “be holy” as the Lord is holy (Lv 19:2). Luke’s version of this passage says “be merciful” as the Father is merciful (Lk 6:36). Matthew, like Leviticus and Luke, calls us not to be formed by instincts for retaliation or vengeance but to emulate God in our treatment of one another, continually working to love one another as God loves all of us.