"Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.”
What does a life that is lived generously look like? Jesus seems to now change his tone and begins to examine the things that have been done out of the law as a way of making justice and keeping order within society. “You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye” but then Jesus takes that standard and turns it inside out, “but I say to you, love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you.” It is generous of a Christian person to become a supposed door mat for someone who is going to treat them badly? What is it with this whole “offer the other check also” stuff?
In ancient times, the way to keep someone in line was to make sure that any harm that was inflicted was met with an equal among of harm. So if you caused another person’s eye to go blind, then it was the injured party’s right to take one of your eyes. If you injure someone’s arm and they cannot use it anymore then they have the right to injure you in the same fashion. In this way judgment is passed and justice was seen to be done. It is called lex talions or the Law of retaliation. For justice to have been done, the punishment must befit the crime committed.
Jesus turns this standard inside out not just upside down. Jesus tells his people, his Church that if they want to be holy, if they want to be like God, then they must choose to love and have mercy on the people whom they do not like and whom they would count as their enemy. As followers of Jesus, we are not taught to overcome evil with a greater evil nor are we to repay evil with evil. We are expected to overcome evil with good and with love. We are called and expected to be holy people. And lets remember that holiness is not solely about personal piety alone; it is primarily shown in the relationships that we keep with God and with others. We are to mirror in our own daily lives the holiness that we have in being in relationship with the Lord Jesus, reflecting it for the world to see. We need to be reminded daily of this simple thing: in the kingdom of heaven, mercy triumphs over judgment. We need to show how God’s love, active in and through the Church overcomes the troubles and hatreds of this sinful and separated world. We are challenged to overcome evil by doing good; overcome hatred with love; overcome violence with mercy; overcome strife with peace.
The demand that we be perfect like God is an acknowledgement that we are on the way to the kingdom, into eternity, and into the deeper presence of the Almighty. It is not that we will be perfect in this life, but that we strive towards that goal. We are responsible for living a life that is generous both in love and in mercy. God will make us what we ought to be in his way and in his time. We will be, as St. Paul points out, brought to our perfection and completion on the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6). The call to holiness and to perfection is a demand for consistency on our lives through consistently loving those we must love. This is what it means to live life as a follower, as a disciple of the One who lights the way to the kingdom. A generous life then is one that is willing to give what is necessary to help others see who God truly is and to offer what has been given that those around us will see, will know and will respond to the grace love and mercy that we ourselves have been afforded by God. After all, as the soldiers crucified the Saviour, didn’t Jesus ask the Father, “Forgive them; they do not know what they do”? Is that not the generous life?