Sometimes we hear Gospel readings that are profoundly simple; they almost speak for themselves. Most of the time we need a little push to get what Jesus is telling us, a little background so that we can apply the lessons in our lives. Today’s Gospel is part of that latter group. It’s chockfull of stuff that could seem to our modern ears to be kind of radical, and so you know, the teaching Jesus gave us here was both radical and radically practical in Roman Palestine.
Jesus gives us three examples of His way of interpreting the Law, the law in this case of proportional justice, and eye for an eye, etc. First we get the famous “turn the other cheek” line. “Being struck on the right cheek entails either a backhand slap from a right-handed person or an open-handed slap from a left-handed person. The left hand in the Middle East is reserved for toilet functions. It is a serious insult to place that hand on the table, use it in eating, or extend it to others. Both slaps are insulting,” to say the least.
Then we have the cloak bit, which referred to one being sued for damages. “Having to resort to courts in the Middle East is very shameful. Arguments should be settled long before this stage. Jesus’ recommendation to yield more (the tunic) than the plaintiff asks (the cloak) is astounding. The cloak was absolutely essential not only as a piece of clothing but as a sleeping bag. To give this up too would leave one naked, a shameful condition to say the least.”
Then we have the impressed servitude problem. In Jesus’ time “… it was legal and customary for soldiers to force citizens to carry their military gear for one mile. (but only one mile – any more than a mile was against the military code, and the soldier could get in trouble) In first-century, occupied Palestine, this soldier frequently was a fellow Israelite who turned mercenary. Carrying the gear was humiliation enough; being forced to do so by a traitorous fellow citizen was even more humiliating.”
Now, I hear lots of things from you all, but I have yet to hear of any vengeance problems, at least practical vengeance problems. The cheek, the cloak, and the gear all serve as examples of one being publically shamed, and since we don’t live in an honor culture, at least not a strict honor culture like many middle and far eastern ones, we don’t always get the full picture here, and so we don’t get the full lesson either. The closest we get here in Bordentown to practical vengeance is when one of us is touched somehow by gang violence, and it does happen. There are gangs of all types and constitutions in and around Trenton and Camden, and if they somehow lived under the Levitical code of the Old Testament, they would be severely restricted when it comes to retribution. These restrictions were even commented on by Mahatma Gandhi: everyone seems to love Gandhi – I don’t, he got things mostly wrong – and he was wrong about the whole “an eye for an eye” thing. He said that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” which just proves he didn’t know his Hebrew Testament very well. An eye for an eye didn’t blind everyone so much as it kept people alive; retribution was limited to the level of the original infraction. The violence that could come out of being shamed was therefore regulated: by law, an Israelite could not cut off a man’s hand because his neighbor let his dog poop in his yard; by law, an Israelite could not kill a man because that man gouged out his eye. It’s a system of proportional justice that still exists, in a manner, in the American legal system.
But when Jesus came along, He didn’t so much change the Law as shifted it over a bit, He changed the way the Law was exercised. So someone shames you? Resist the perpetrator by taking away his power to shame you. Turn the other cheek in defiance, not in submission. Strip naked to highlight injustice rather than your nice legs. Carry the soldiers gear the second mile so he would be forced to refuse your hospitality. In other words, resist the evil actions of others who seek to bring shame down upon you, but do it in a way that makes you the bigger person. Like St. Paul said, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:20) Resist evil, but do it in a way that stirs up the coals in the perpetrator’s heart, that rouses him to wonder just what on earth is different about you, what makes you calm in a violence world, what makes you seek mercy when justice is do. Resist evil, but do it in a way that others might see God.
 The Center for Liturgy Sunday Website