Subtitle: Or do you think I’ve lost mine?
Prologue: In these days of heightened American rancor, with the heat of a presidential impeachment trial in the air, when our national temperature is elevated, our national temper raw, when our social fabric is riven by divisions, personal and political, when old friends, with the utterance of one more disagreeable word than tolerable, become new enemies, when I, as much as the next person, am given to the temptation to fall prey to the reigning, raging animus of these days, I have engaged in long conversations with Jesus about his teaching:
“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 an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. If anyone takes your coat, give your cloak as well…Love your enemies…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5.38-39, 40b, 44a, 48).
Jesus, how do I, how can I understand your words? For my initial reaction, I confess, is disbelief.
Taking you literally, what you espouse, as I perceive it, is a defenselessness that, if I was to attempt it, would leave me insanely vulnerable to the world. So, I can’t, I won’t take you seriously.
But, on my ever-immediate second thought, as one of your followers, I can’t (or oughtn’t) dismiss your words that easily. For you aren’t a naïve-fantasy-world-dwelling-dreamer who knows neither the reality of sin nor the suffering, whether by nature’s caprice or willful human hands, that can befall anyone in this life. You, though innocent, arrested and tried, convicted and crucified, know more troubles than I’ve seen or desire to see. So, I must take you at your word, which, for me, begs a question…
Jesus, if I do what you counsel, indeed, command, might that lead to the defeat of goodness? If someone strikes me in the face and I offer my other cheek or takes my coat and I offer my cloak, too; in other words, if I don’t stand up for my rights and oppose someone who I think, believe is not in the right, won’t that…won’t I collude with the triumph of wrong?
But, at the behest of another immediate second thought, I see the gaping hole in my protest. For, truth to tell, as long as I’ve been one of your followers, I can’t say that I’ve attempted to live the life you prescribe as fully as I might, which, even then, would fall short of the perfection of your always practicing what you preach!
Even more, Jesus, living life my way, I’ve stood up for my rights when I thought…felt another had treaded on my autonomy. Nevertheless, I have not (I never have) resisted evil, as you have done, to the point of risking death.
Still more, Jesus, I have not defeated every temptation I’ve encountered or banished every wicked thought or impure feeling that has arisen and nested in my mind and heart.
Hence, my weak objections aside, honesty compels me to return to my presenting question (which, Jesus, I suppose you knew and, thus, waited patiently for me to come back ‘round!): How do I, how can I understand your words?
Illustration: The Beatitudes (aka The Sermon on the Mount), James Tissot (1836-1902)