Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 7th Sunday of Year A, Matt 5:38-48, February 20, 2011
“War is hell,” Gen William Tecumseh Sherman correctly noted, and its hellish character is exemplified in what has been called “the Balangiga Massacre”. As part of the pacification of the Visayas, Company C of the 9th Infantry of the US Army was sent to Balangiga in the island of Samar, Philippines, to garrison the town. In a few days, what started as a friendly relation between the natives and the soldiers turned sourish. On September 28, 1901, while all the 54 soldiers were having their breakfast, the local revolutionaries made a surprise attack, killing 47 of them, wounding the rest. Still, the “Americanos” were able to fight back, killing about 14 to 25 natives. In a few days, however, the payback time came. Gen Jake Smith ordered his men “to kill and burn”, shooting anyone capable of bearing arms, including boys above 10 years old. Hundreds of houses were burned, farm animals slaughtered, and, according to one writer, about 2,500 Samareños, mainly of southern part of the island, were killed. The revolutionaries sowed the wind, they reaped the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7).
Is this the way for Christians to respond to those who do them violence—almost unlimited vendetta? One is reminded of what Lamech said to his wives, “if Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen 4:24). Some scholars say that this song of Lamech is probably the origin of the tribal sevenfold vengeance to obtain justice for killing a powerful leader (see 2 Sam 21:1-9). And it is against this background that one has to understanding the law of revenge that the Gospel adverts to: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Matt 5:38). This law, known as lex talionis, tit for tat, was part of the commandments given at Mt Sinai: “If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exod 21:23-25). Although that law may appear savage to modern ears, yet in intent it was the beginning of mercy, as it limited revenge. In other words, it was meant to regulate boundless vendetta.
But for Jesus, even limited reprisal has no place in a Christian community. Which is why with authority he replaced the law of talion with another law—the law of non-resistance: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, ‘Do not resist an evil person” (Matt 5:39). In Jewish law, retaliation was a right, but for Jesus even this right has to be renounced. The force of this saying can be well appreciated if one recalls that during the time of Jesus, there were already various groups and movements that sought to dislodge the hegemony of Rome, and it is not impossible that some in Jesus’ audience were being recruited to the cause of uprising against the Emperor, a movement that in fact culminated in the First Jewish Revolt Against Rome in 66-70 AD. Here was an empire that used violence against its subjects; and would it be right—the question was certainly raised--for a Christian to ground his action on lex talionis? The law of Moses grants a Jew a right to make revenge, but Jesus would ask his followers to renounce it and offer no armed resistance.
In the Gospel, Jesus gave three examples of applying this principle:  The first concerns suffering physical violence: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (v 39).  The second prohibits meeting a legal action with another legal action: “And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (v 40).  And the third is about accepting force labor with cheerfulness: “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (v 41). If Jesus urged non-retaliation, the motive, as noted in the Gospel last Sunday, is none other love. He wanted to perfect this love by perfecting respect for any person, even those who do violence. Love is shown by ending retaliation and resentment, and by offering no resistance to injury. If it would seem that justice has little place, it is probably because justice, without love, may just be a cloak for one’s vindictiveness. Love is shown in suffering (cf 1 Cor 13:4-7).
Of course, Jesus walked his talk. When one of his companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the High Priest, he said to him, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw their sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26:52). Notice that it was in his power to take revenge, but he did not use it to destroy his enemies: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (v 53-54). But he came to bring God’s love for men, even for those in power who wanted to murder him. Indeed, it was to fulfill this plan of God that he came: “But how then the Scriptures be fulfilled that say, it must happen in this way?” (v 54). Thus, Jesus was clearly determined to follow the path of non-retaliation, a path which God himself has outlined for his Son. This principle of non-resistance is echoed by St Paul: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21).
Thus, we see a powerful Jesus not using his power to destroy those out to kill him, but allowing himself to be liquidated instead. To suffer indignity and humiliation, instead of retaliating—this is the challenge. When a committee of congressmen conceived the idea of transferring some troops in the east to the west, and some in the west to the east, Abraham Lincoln agreed and told the committee to see Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. Hearing that the President was agreed to the plan, Stanton told the congressmen that Lincoln “was a d-d fool.” When this was related to the President, Lincoln commented, “He [Stanton] must be correct, as I have yet to know of Stanton being wrong.” True, one might say that the principle is applicable at the personal level, but can this be applied in other situations, like the relationship between nations? But, why not? Would it be Christian to destroy Basilan or Jolo on account of the evils that the Abu Sayaf fighters have been engaged in? Would it be right to obliterate a country because the followers of a Saddam Hussein continue to upset the work of peace? Of course, the logic of power would dictate that that would be right approach, but one wonders whether it can claim to be Christian.