Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek. But what does that mean in a world of corruption and injustice?
In 2019, Pope Francis issued a decree advancing the cause for sainthood for Augustus Tolton. Father Tolton, who is now Venerable Augustus Tolton, has been recognized for his heroic virtue, persevering through slavery and contending with racism inside and outside of the Church. Despite the enormous challenges, Father Tolton discerned his vocation to the priesthood and ultimately provided for the spiritual and physical needs of many Black Catholics in Illinois.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Lk 6:31)
How can you respond to the needs of the world?
How do you respond to Jesus’ command to love enemies?
What can you do to be more loving and merciful?
In today’s Gospel from Luke, we encounter images of society in disarray. Jesus speaks of the social realities of injustice and abuse, and he gives guidance on how his followers should respond. Last Sunday we heard Jesus calling out those who benefit from injustice and inequality, and today Jesus shifts the focus to address his disciples’ actions.
Jesus gives his followers multiple challenging commands, such as “love your enemies, be good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you and pray for those who mistreat you.” We know the command to love (agape) is a call to emulate God’s divine, selfless love for all creation. With these instructions, Jesus requires the disciples to confront people doing evil but not reciprocate their hostility.
Jesus opposed people and systems that created poverty and oppression, and this commitment is embedded in the Gospels. At the same time, Jesus responded to the needs of the world with love and mercy, and he wanted the same of his followers. We hear this explicitly with Jesus’ statement to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
We should notice that Jesus’ command is not to love injustice and ignore corruption. Jesus does not want us to accept abuse, tolerate racism or overlook the root causes of suffering in society. Rather, he wants us to be actively, creatively and mercifully engaged in preventing and solving the problems of the world. Today’s Gospel is not about passively acquiescing to corrupt forces, which is a misinterpretation of Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek.
Instead, we should take the verbs of today’s Gospel—love, bless, give, forgive—and let them inform how we live in the world. Father Tolton models how to respond to hate. When rejected from American seminaries because of his race, it is likely that Father Tolton prayed for and forgave his oppressors. But he did not let those racist policies have the last word. Instead, he also developed a workaround, collaborating with Father Peter McGirr to find a way to answer his call that ultimately led him to study in Rome.
When we encounter people who take advantage of systems and benefit from the suffering and exclusion of others, the “enemies” of today’s Gospel, we are called to love them. And when we encounter people who suffer because of corrupt systems, we are also called to love them. Jesus’ teachings challenge us to look inward and outward to find ways to love and serve that will create a just society.