Certainly among the most quoted words of Jesus Christ are the few phrases found in this coming Sunday’s Gospel. How often are offended parties told to “turn the other cheek!” Countless times burdened persons are encouraged to “go the extra mile!” “Love your enemies” is often uttered as the quintessential Christian message! In the opening chapter of the celebrated Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, with keen if unsurprising insight, suggests several areas of personal experience in which a believer’s human dignity is under attack. Just imagine any one of us standing in public or even in private and being slapped in the face. For English speakers the very phrase “slap in the face” is synonymous with embarrassment, humiliation and loss of dignity. Picture again someone standing half-dressed or even naked in public. Someone deprived of his or her outer garment, a cloak, as well as his or her inner garment, a tunic, would be quite mortified to say the least. Even Adam and Eve grabbed some fig leaves in their shame.
During the American Revolution one of the greatest indignities leveled on the colonists was the quartering of British troops. And sometimes these troops were not even British. They were more likely German-speaking Hessian mercenaries. Imagine unwelcomed foreigners moving into one’s home for bed and board. A similar indignity was experienced in ancient Palestine. Roman troops could tap the Jewish populace on their shoulder and have them carry their equipment far and wide. How humiliating to have foreigners exercising authority in one’s homeland.
And again, rare is the human person that can genuinely love any hostile force. Jesus quotes the Old Testament in what is certainly a characteristic of all human nature: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Today’s newspapers and radio talk-shows and television broadcasts thrive on the animosity that exists between moral, political and philosophical enemies. An encounter with someone who despises everything that a person holds dear is a real test for human nature.
Each of these scenarios — the slap in the face, the stripping of clothes, the assistance to foreign troops, the love of hostile forces — dramatically robs any individual of his or her sense of self-worth. Each of these circumstances especially lowers the participant’s standing in the community’s eye. A public slap is demeaning. Public nakedness is humiliating. Bowing to foreigners is denigrating. Love of enemies might even be seen as disloyal. Yet Jesus clearly informs his followers not to let any of these awkward instances get them down. A slap? Offer the other cheek. Half-naked? Offer more clothes. Foreigners taking advantage? Double your compliance. Enemies at the door? Embrace them.
And the reason that Christians can follow the curious instructions of Jesus and reverse all these situations is that the Christian knows that his or her true dignity comes not from an ability to self-defend, nor from one’s fine clothes, nor from a free homeland, nor from military superiority. The Christian’s authentic dignity comes abundantly and exclusively from God alone. God is ultimate source of true self-worth. Christians are told to maintain their composure so “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.” The exceptional conduct of the Christian believer should draw all observers to appreciate that God is the unique and authentic source of all true worth, of all true dignity, of all true respect.
Christian conduct must by its very nature stand apart from the conduct of the average man or woman on the street. For example, Jesus makes the following observation about love of enemies: “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?” Clearly Christian believers in every generation must stand apart from the tax collectors and pagans of their day. The prideful or cowardly or self-serving demeanor found among worldlings when threatened will find no place among Christians who know themselves to be secure in God’s care. St. Paul offers the same advice in this Sunday’s second reading: “…the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.” St. Paul writes that no one should boast about “human nature.” The believer’s one authentic boast must be his or her interior relationship with God: “…the Spirit of God dwells in you.” God, not human nature, will strengthen the believer faced with any insult and will rescue the believer in the time of any trouble.