Americans tend to reduce Jesus’ preaching in the Gospels to a series of thin moral maxims. Be nice and super kind.
The risk of many readings of the Sermon on the Mount is that they encourage this kind of reduction, emphasizing the primacy of our behavior above God’s activity. But this reduction is to misread Jesus’ remarkable teaching: We love one another because God first loved us.
We can never emphasize too often that the Jewish Law was not a series of moral or legal maxims. Instead, to obey the Law was to respond to the original gift of divine mercy made manifest to Moses and the prophets.
We hear in the book of Leviticus: “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy” (Lv 19:2). Chapter 19 continues with a list of commands that Israel must obey as a response to God’s holiness.
Among these commands is to avoid hatred by loving your neighbor as yourself. This love is in radical imitation of divine love itself, which did not spurn the cries of Israel but acted even as Israel failed to live up to its end of the bargain. The Lord has a preferential option for mercy, and thus we should too!
This radical mercy is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching today in the Gospel. The Law in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21 allows for a reasonable moment of retaliation in case of harm. No more than an eye for an eye, no more than a tooth for a tooth.
But Jesus does not allow this! Someone who suffers injury should never retaliate but instead should participate in acts of nonviolence. Turn away the cheek from the assailant; take up the role of the suffering servant loving even the enemy!
Jesus’ proclamation that we are to love the enemy (as well as the neighbor) is undoubtedly hard to hear. As human beings, there is a sadistic joy that we experience in responding to the violence that we often experience in the world.
If an insult is directed to our family or to our friends, we delight in being able to offer this same insult in return to our enemy. When a politician we suspect of being duplicitous has his career come to an end, we laugh (at least internally) at the fallout.
Yes, these moments of rejoicing in the suffering of the other continues the cycle of violence that Jesus has come to stop. We are not made for violence, for games of power and prestige. We are made to be holy, to be made perfect “just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
St. Paul today reminds us, after all, that our very bodies have been claimed not by the powers of violence in the world but by the peace of the temple itself: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”(1 Cor 3:16).
When we continue the cycle of violence that Jesus came to stop in our politics, in our families, in our cities and communities, we do not live out our truest identity as those infused with the Spirit of God. Instead, we reseize our identities, refusing to be the holy temple that we are. We can become this holy temple only when we give every dimension of our bodies, our desires, our minds, everything over to the Eucharistic love revealed by Christ himself upon the cross.
God loved us first as gift beyond gift.
We now must love in return.
It is right and just.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.