False Swearing and Striking CheeksFr. Barnabas Powell
There is a radicalness to the Gospel of Jesus that simply confounds most in our world, even those of us who claim to follow the Man from Galilee.
The truth is this radical message is in stark contrast to much of the underlying philosophy and “epistemology” (an important word worth looking up and exploring!) of most human philosophy and even religions.
Such is the radical nature of the Lord’s teaching in today’s Gospel Lesson in Matthew 5:33-41. Here the Lord powerfully contrasts two phrases: “You have heard that it was said… and “But I say to you…”
Jesus sets His insights concerning two significant “old, wise sayings” as better than the received wisdom of His day. In fact, the Lord clearly suggests that the “old ways” aren’t really the best ways when it comes to the “old sayings” He confronts today.
The first “old saying” has to do with how we communicate, and this gets to a deeper, internal spiritual poverty all too common in we humans.
The Lord says “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” Matthew 5:33-37
Isn’t it amazing what lengths we humans will go to convince another we are telling the truth about a matter? We even place our right hand on a sacred text when we are testifying in court. But Jesus declares that our inner life should be so committed to authenticity and honesty that we shouldn’t need these “props” to add genuineness to our words. Our communication should flow from such a simple (notice, I didn’t say “easy”) life that a simple “yes” or “no” should be sufficient and our own integrity is so unquestioned that this answer is always enough.
But that amazing life first requires an inner peace and simplicity that shuns duplicity and manipulation. No wonder the Lord says “anything more than this comes from evil.”
The second “old saying” deals with our behavior, and this, too, flows from a deeper, inner life and attitude that motivates our actions and choices.
The Lord says “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Matthew 5:38-41
OK, now this may be getting out of hand!
No, not really. The Lord offers us such a radically different, and ultimately life-giving freedom, from the slavery of score-keeping and unending revenge! The Lord calls us to be so confident in the resurrection of the dead and His ultimate victory over all injustice that we release all temporary desires to “set things right” for the better life of liberty from anger and grudges and hatred. Even to the point that if you are struck on one cheek, you offer the other cheek to your attacker! By the way, most other religions and philosophies of life are centered on “individual” autonomy and “justice.” It’s why Islam considers this teaching of Christianity a sign of weakness.
But is it? No, it is actually a sign of mature faith and confidence in God and a healthy suspicion of our own motivations and weak ideas concerning true justice. It is an acknowledgement of our own short-sightedness about what even our enemies may be going through and an attitude of mercy and forgiveness to all men. Plus, it is a confidence that even if my enemy kills me, he only kills the body and my body will not stay in the grave, because of my Lord’s victory over death and corruption.
Today, is your inner life being shaped by the radical message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Are you free from the inner manipulations of your own deceit? Are you free from the never ending “score-keeping” of revenge and “Don’t I deserve to be happy?”
Our Orthodox faith invites us to a path of freedom that allows our lives such a simplicity that all the dishonesty in the world never penetrates our hearts and all the fear based hatred in the world never overcomes the love of God within us. That sounds like true freedom to me!
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