Turn the other cheek? Offer no resistance to one who is evil? What do these commands of our Lord Jesus Christ mean? And how are they tied to holiness and the virtue of charity?
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
23 February 2020
Our readings in the holy sacrifice of the Mass today are about holiness, what it means to be holy, and the virtue of charity. The first reading is from Leviticus 19, an OT book that makes up one of the 5 books of the Torah or the law. In Leviticus 19:1-2 we hear the Lord’s command given to Moses: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.”
In Hebrew, the word for holy is qadhosh, meaning to be set apart for a special purpose. In many ways, the OT is the story about how God called the people Israel to be set apart from the other nations for a special purpose. God set them apart as a community, as a people, to make them holy unto himself, as he is holy. In our reading from Leviticus 19, we can discern the beginnings of how God was preparing the Israelites for a new standard of holiness in his Son, Jesus Christ.
For example, he commands the Israelites: “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart” (v. 17). In other words, you shall not hate your own kin. “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (v. 18). The Israelites would have interpreted these commands in terms of their community. They would not have seen them as applying to pagans or Gentile nations.
In today’s gospel (Matt 5:38-48), the Lord Jesus Christ lays out a whole new standard of love based on divine love. Recall that Jesus said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matt 5:17). In the commands of Jesus, we find an intensification of the law, not a relaxation of it.
Let’s take a look at the words of our Lord in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus said to his disciples:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.Matt 5:39
The “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” saying comes from Ex 21:24, often called the “Law of retaliation.” It was based on a strict kind of justice in terms of punishment due. When someone injured another, the injured person had a right to enact justice by inflicting the same type of injury in retaliation. This law was originally based on limiting damage. It was far worse for people to seek vengeance by magnifying injury in retribution, something which would lead to an escalation of violence.
When Jesus says, “offer no resistance to one who is evil,” people sometimes think he is commanding a kind of total pacifism against any and every injustice. However, that’s not what he is saying. Jesus is not teaching we must tolerate every injustice and allow ourselves or others to be used as “doormats,” so to speak. He can’t be teaching that, because doing so would be in contradiction to his other teaching, such as when he taught earlier in his sermon on the mount that those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” will “be satisfied” (Matt 5:6). Other examples include his overturning of the tables of the money changers in the temple (Matt 21:12, Mark 11:15), his frequent decry of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and his statement that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). Righteousness means to be in right relationship with God and others, which is another way of describing the virtue of justice. The OT, too, contains many examples of God commanding people to seek justice, such as feeding the hungry, protecting widows, and freeing the poor from oppression.
In the context of Jesus’ teaching, he is speaking about suffering insults from others and how his followers should refrain from seeking vengeance, or at least emphasizing that context. This conclusion is possible based on what he says next: “When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Matt 5:39).
During the time of Jesus’ pubic ministry, it was considered among the Jews to be a great insult to receive a backhanded slap, as in a right-handed person slapping another person on the right cheek with the back of his hand. If you wanted to insult a man, that was how it was done. It was much more of an insult than slapping a man with the palm of one’s hand.
When Jesus commands us to turn the other cheek, he is commanding us to refrain from vengeful retaliation. We should respond to personal insults and persecution with patience and forgiveness, as he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5).
Jesus is commanding us to respond to insults as God the Father responds. When we use the energy and life that God supplies to offend him and others (sin), he doesn’t immediately retaliate. He doesn’t seek vengeance as in an aggressive, violent, angry act of retribution. God doesn’t react in that way. Men do. How does God react? With patience and love (this is not to suggest God never punishes. He does punish wrongdoing for our good and the good of others).
Go The Extra Mile
Next, Jesus says, “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles” (v. 41).
What’s the context here? The Jews hearing Jesus would have immediately thought about their Roman oppressors. Roman soldiers were allowed to requisition Jews to carry their gear for a mile. If you were a Jew who happened to be traveling and ran into a company of Roman soldiers, you could be pressed into service to carry their supplies.
Jesus teaches something that would have been met with astonishment by his listeners. Treat the Romans with love. Go the extra mile. Why would Jesus teach this? After all, the Romans were treating Jews unjustly. The point is, acts of friendship beget other acts of friendship. Love begets love. Reacting stubbornly or even violently against this Roman practice would serve no good.
Love and Pray for Your Enemies
Next, Jesus commands something even more astonishing:
You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.v. 43-45
Jesus commands us not to simply love our neighbors, but to love even our enemies. That’s how God loves. How is it possible to do this, to live out this command?
Only with grace.
The Virtue of Charity
This brings us to the theological virtue of charity, so-called (theological) because it is an infused gift from God that gives a person the ability to love in a supernatural way, with a divine love like God loves. The virtue of charity is often called “Christian love.” It’s not possible to learn charity or to acquire it through your own efforts because it is a gift from God normally received through baptism (with the gift of the Holy Spirit) and the other sacraments. It’s a divinely given gift, not a human-learned skill.
The Catechism defines the virtue of charity this way:
Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.CCC 1822
Charity is a gift God gives in love, that gives to the Christian a sacred power to love God above all else for his sake: to love him for his perfections of truth, goodness, beauty, love, justice, and mercy; to love him as Creator and Father; to love him because he is Divine Love. In charity, we love God for who he is, not simply because he has the power to do good things for us. Charity moves us to place God first in our lives and thus orders our lives here below to life in the kingdom of heaven.
The virtue of charity is not at all like worldly kindness or “love,” what our Lord Jesus speaks of as pagan practices. Pagans are kind to pagans who treat them well. Pagans greet their brothers who greet them in return. Pagans return respect for respect. But their enemies? Well, … that’s a different story. Christian love means loving even our enemies—a love we show by praying for those who hate us, that they may receive God’s grace and salvation. Loving even one’s enemies is one of the marked differences between the Christian and the pagan.
Pagan love is being nice to people and getting along well with others—so common today, as is “tolerate everything” (except Christian moral principles), which is highly disruptive in terms of generating true goodness, healing, and unity. While it’s true that a certain level of civility is important to live in society, getting along well with others or being “nice” is not the point of the Christian life.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?Matt 5:46-47
Pagan “love” is not what the virtue of charity is about.
The virtue of charity means we love others in God and for the sake of our love for God. In charity, we love others because they are created in God’s image and likeness, redeemed in Christ, and called to share in the blessed life of God by entering into eternal communion with the Holy Trinity.
Of course, the virtue of charity means things like serving the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless. In charity, we do these things not for personal gratification or gain or adulation, but because that is what is required of us to love others in God.
But charity also means more than providing for the material needs of others. It rises above mere social justice. Charity reaches beyond the temporal and into the eternal.
Charity Seeks The True Benefit of Others in God
The highest act of charity is to give witness to the truth in Christ. If we think we’re acting charitably while we yet remain unconcerned about the eternal welfare of others, we’re fooling ourselves. Since charity means loving others for the love of God, it means working for the eternal well-being of others. It means giving witness to Christ as Savior. It means striving to help others attain salvation by engaging in a participation in Christ’s saving mission. It means communicating to others what is really true and infusing society with Catholic and Christian principles of faith and morals. It means both living and spreading the gospel message, the saving power of God.
Further, charity is ordered toward seeking the true benefit of the souls of others—always. Charity means giving fraternal correction in an effort to help to lift people from a life of mortal sin, for spiritual death of the soul is the very worst evil that can beset one’s neighbors. Charity means witnessing to what is true in terms of urging people committing grave sins to repentance. The common mantra of today, “one must never judge others,” that is so often used as an excuse to engage in false tolerance in a cowardly display of avoiding any possibility of giving offense, is not in harmony with charity. It is opposed to it. Such an attitude conveniently sets aside the duty incumbent upon every Christian to spread the gospel message, which, if you recall, begins with our Lord’s call to repentance:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.Mark 1:15
While it might come as a surprise to many Catholics and other Christians, the Lord Jesus Christ never commands us to refrain from every kind of judgment about wrongdoing or sin and thus set aside fraternal correction. On the contrary, he clearly teaches that we have a responsibility to call people (in the right way and with love) to task for their sins:
Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.Luke 17:3-4
The fact is, sin is deadly. The person who possesses the virtue of charity does what he can, when he can, to combat it for the true benefit of others.
Finally, Jesus commands: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).
How is it possible to “be perfect” as our “heavenly Father is perfect”?
It’s not. Not humanly possible. The only means of attaining divine perfection is by availing ourselves of God’s help. You see, it is God who makes his children perfect. For instance, in the sacrament of baptism, Christ infuses the gift of the Holy Spirit into the soul, configures us to himself as a member of his body, and inserts us into the life of the Church. It is therefore God who does the sanctifying, perfecting, and re-creating. It is God who raises us up into holiness. It is God who takes us to himself and makes us holy as he is holy.
Having said that, your efforts are indispensable. Yes, you must strive and pray and work. Cooperate with the grace of Christ and the divine, loving impulses of the Holy Spirit. Apply yourself with diligence and persistence that you may, aided by God’s grace, defeat sin.
However, you cannot become perfect in isolation of God. Perfection can only be acquired through grace in combination with your efforts. That is why humility is key. The starting point on the road to perfection begins with humility before God. Without it, pride often reigns and sanctification is frequently halted as the person turns away from God and inwardly toward himself.
Look to God. Beg Christ to grant you his gifts of holiness, charity, and perfection.
“Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.”
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.