Sunday, February 23, 2014

‘Turning The Other Cheek’

(Seventh Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 23, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 5: 38-48.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventh Sunday 2014]

“But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.  When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.”

Those are some of the most troubling and confusing words in all of Sacred Scripture.  People read them and respond with surprise and sometimes even with shock.  They’ll say, “Lord Jesus, what are you talking about?  Are you saying that I should never defend myself in any situation?  Are you saying that I’m supposed to go through life like a ‘doormat’—allowing people to insult me and take advantage of me and walk all over me?”

Those are very good questions.  I’ll try to answer them today in this homily with the help of St. Thomas Aquinas, who is arguably the greatest theologian in the history of the Church.

Aquinas makes reference to this troublesome verse from Matthew 5 in his commentary on the Gospel of John—when he’s discussing the appearance of Jesus before Annas, the high priest.  The story is found in John, chapter 18.  Let me refresh your memory now by reading you that brief section of Scripture:

[This event happened on Holy Thursday night, after the Last Supper.]

“[Annas] the high priest questioned Jesus, first about his disciples, then about his teaching.  Jesus answered by saying: ‘I have spoken publicly to any who would listen.  I always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews come together.  There was nothing secret about anything I said.  Why do you question me?  Question those who heard me when I spoke.  It should be obvious that they will know what I said.’  At this reply, one of the guards who was standing nearby gave Jesus a sharp blow on the face.  ‘Is that the way to answer the high priest?’  Jesus replied, ‘If I said anything wrong produce the evidence, but if I spoke the truth why hit me?’”

In this case, as Aquinas notes, our Lord defended himself.  Physically speaking, he did not offer that guard his other cheek for him to slap.

At other times during his passion, however, Jesus did suffer in silence, without defending himself verbally or in any other way.  When, for example, the Roman soldiers struck him repeatedly on the head with a reed, Jesus said nothing.  When the chief priests and elders made false charges against him—attacking him verbally—our Lord “made no answer” according to Matthew 27: 12.

So it seems that sometimes Jesus did defend himself, and at other times he very quietly and very patiently endured physical and verbal abuse without defending himself in any way.  And, of course, in both cases—both when he defended himself and when he didn’t—he harbored no hatred or bitterness whatsoever toward his attackers.

Aquinas makes the point that, as disciples of Christ, we need to try to follow Jesus’ example here—as we should in every situation of life.  Along with other great theologians like St. Augustine, Aquinas says that if we want to know how to follow a particular command that’s given to us in the Bible (like the command to turn the other cheek), we need to look and see how Jesus followed that command in his own life, and how the great saints of the Church were faithful to it in theirs.  So the very fact that Jesus sometimes defended himself means that his command to “turn the other cheek” doesn’t apply literally to every situation and circumstance of life.

Yet in all situations we must avoid hatred and vindictiveness, as Jesus always avoided hatred and vindictiveness.

Here’s how St. Thomas Aquinas put it:

“Sacred Scripture should be understood according to the way Christ and other holy persons followed it.  Now, Christ did not turn his other cheek here [in that story from John’s Gospel that I read to you a few moments ago]; and Paul did not do so either.  Accordingly, we should not think that Christ has commanded us to actually turn our physical cheek to one who has struck the other. We should understand it to mean that we should be ready to do this if it turned out to be necessary to do so. That is, our attitude should be such that we would not be inwardly stirred up against the one striking us, but be ready or disposed to endure the same or even more.  This is how our Lord observed it, for he offered his body to be killed.  So, our Lord's defense is useful for our instruction.” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, Lecture 4)

I was trying to think of an example of how all this would play out in the real world, and what came to mind almost immediately was the whole “gay marriage controversy” that took place in our state and town last year.

Most of you will remember that I was falsely accused in the press and media at the time of “lobbying from the pulpit in violation of the Church’s tax exempt status.” (That’s a direct quote from the Westerly Sun.)
All because I urged my parishioners to exercise their constitutional right of free speech by letting Senator Dennis Algiere know where they stood on the issue!
I didn’t even tell people which side of the issue they should take—although I obviously thought that most would voice their support for traditional marriage.

For this I was attacked in the Sun, in the Providence Journal (by columnist Bob Kerr), on the Buddy Cianci Show—and probably in a number living rooms and barrooms in southern New England.

But, with the exception of some things I said from this pulpit, I remained relatively silent about the situation—until the Sun needlessly resurrected the whole controversy in late June.  At that point I decided that the Lord wanted me to be silent no more and to (as the old saying goes) “set the record straight.”

So I wrote a letter to the Sun about what I actually did say when I had urged parishioners to contact Senator Algiere.  (The Sun’s writers had gotten the details almost totally wrong in their initial reporting.)  I also accused them of “yellow journalism” and of trying to undermine my credibility as a religious leader in this community.

And what was their response?

Well, as some of you will remember, they actually gave my letter special status by making it the guest editorial on the day it was published!

Go figure.

I believe there was a time to be silent in this situation—and bear the “slap on the cheek” for the sake of Christ and his Gospel; but I also believe there was a time to speak out and defend not only myself, but also the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and, to some extent, all of you (because all of you who made calls to Senator Algiere were implicated indirectly).

Now, in both cases—both when I was silent and when I spoke out—I tried to act (as Thomas Aquinas would say) without being “inwardly stirred against the ones striking me.”  And so I had to pray for the grace to love my enemies—because, as is the case with most people, my first inclination is not to love my enemies!

I’m being totally honest here.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me this morning, I’m not saying that I always do this perfectly in my life.  Jesus was always silent when he should have been silent and he always defended himself when he should have defended himself.

That’s because he was (and is) God.

But I’m not God, and neither are you!  We can easily get it wrong—and we sometimes do.

We have to be humble enough to admit that.

This is yet another reason why we need to pray every day—especially when we’re faced with one of these situations.

And our prayer needs to go something like this:

Dear Lord, help me to know.  Help me to know your perfect and holy will.  Help me to recognize those moments when you want me to defend myself, and those moments when you want me to endure the “slap on the cheek” for your sake.  My emotions will always tell me to retaliate when I’m offended in any way, but you call me to live by faith and not by my emotions.

Enable me to know your will in this situation I’m presently facing.  But, regardless of whether you’re calling me to defend myself right now or to be silent, help me to do so with love in my heart—the kind of love you always had in your heart, even for your enemies.  Amen.