Some robbers came once to a hermitage and said, “We’ve come to take everything out of your cell”. The hermit said, “Take whatever you see, my sons.” So they took what they found in the cell, and went away. But they missed a little bag that was hidden in a corner. The hermit picked it up, and ran after them, shouting, “My sons, you missed this; take it.” They were amazed at his patience and restored everything, and did penance before him. They said to each other, “Truly, this is a man of God.”
Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Chapter 16, Patience, n. 13.
This story from the desert fathers, set in 4th century Egypt, exemplifies a perfect, literal fidelity to the words of Jesus. We find it delightful, and it makes us smile. We smile because although we find this hermit utterly admirable, it would never occur to us to imitate him. Recently our own Bishop’s house was broken into at night by a drug addict. The burglar was busy ransacking his personal office, turning out all the drawers onto the floor, when the Bishop confronted him. We don’t think our Bishop failed in Christian discipleship when he neglected to hand over everything he had to that burglar. Nor do we think him wrong to have called the Police, and helped them identify his unwelcome guest.
Now I absolutely don’t want to explain away or water down any of our Lord’s words. Still, the Catholic Church is faithful to the Gospel when she teaches that an individual or nation has the right, and at times the duty, to act in self defence against an unjust aggressor. Do not judge, said Jesus. But any human society will need Judges, and a Christian can honourably fulfil that function. As for turning the other cheek: we know that Jesus Himself did not literally do that when struck during his trial (Jn 18:22), nor did His faithful disciple St. Paul, when struck by the servant of the High Priest (Acts 23:3).
So what are we to make of the sayings in today’s Gospel? Certainly, we are supposed to be disconcerted by them, astonished at them, deeply challenged by them. But still, we can recognise their use of strong concrete images, according to the conventions of Semitic and Rabbinic discourse. We can accept also their heightened rhetorical effect through the use of hyperbole. To get at their authentic meaning, then, we must read them in a way that’s not merely literal, or at least not merely restricted to the literal sense. To put that another way: we should approach the Gospel not just according to the letter, but according to the Spirit. The law of Christ we know is utterly simple. It’s the law of the Spirit: the single law of charity. This can’t be confined to a set of rules or examples. Jesus doesn’t ask us to live according to rules, but to have his own mind in us. And today’s Gospel give us a privileged window into the mind of Jesus.
Jesus said to his disciples: I say this to you who are listening. Throughout this discourse we have a sharp contrast between other people, identified as sinners, pagans, unbelievers, and “you”. “You” have to be different from them. Who counts as belonging to this group whom Jesus addresses as “you”? It’s those disciples of Jesus whose whole world has been turned upside down by their encounter with him. It’s those whose attitude to life, to the world and to everything in it has been radically transformed because they now belong to him. Let us say, let us hope, that this means us. We are those who previously were at enmity with God. Without Christ, we lived only for ourselves. We followed nothing better than our own instincts, and the social conventions in which we were raised. But also we are those who, in return for all that, have received from God nothing but mercy, and compassion, and forgiveness. We are those who have been loved beyond measure, without any prior claim or any deserving on our part. We were God’s enemies, and now he has called us his Sons. We were radically needy, but now he has made us rich beyond imagination.
Present the other cheek, said Jesus. Do not refuse your tunic. Give to anyone who asks. Lend without any hope of return. Is all this mere madness? No, it’s the height of wisdom. That is proved both by the personal example of Jesus, and by the reward that is promised. Jesus speaks of the reward not by exaggeration, but by understatement. How otherwise can he name what is wonderful beyond words; what is infinite and eternal? So using the image of a measure of wheat, not to be taken merely literally, Jesus says that, in return for our own generosity, we will be given “gifts in full measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.”
In order to gain such gifts, that is, to have life in its fullness, to inherit eternal joy, to have a place forever in heaven, we are invited to become Christ-like in our attitudes and in our behaviour. This is not for utilitarian motives. It’s not merely in order, as it were, to make the world a better place. No, Jesus invites us to be like himself because that is supremely for our own good. It makes us fit for his company, and prepares us in the best possible way to receive the super-abundant gifts he wants to give us.
The purpose of reading today’s Gospel is not to make us feel guilty, but to inspire us, and to re-kindle our desire for the Kingdom. We who belong to Christ are reminded today that our deepest desire really is for that holiness to which He calls us. We are here now to express and nourish that desire by coming to Jesus in the holy Eucharist. Ultimately, the reward we are promised is Christ Himself; the gift Christ makes of Himself. For the sake of such a reward we stand ready in principle to give up everything, even our very life itself.