Sunday, February 24, 2019

What Does Jesus Mean When He Tells Us to ‘Turn the Other Cheek’?

(Seventh Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on February 24, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Samuel 26:2-23; Psalm 103:1-13; 1 Corinthians 15:45-39; Luke 6:27-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventh Sunday 2019]

“To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other as well.”

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that these words of Jesus have caused many people over the centuries to shake their heads in disbelief. 

They’ll typically say, “Is he serious?  Does Jesus expect us to subject ourselves to physical abuse and like it?  Is he saying that if we defend ourselves from physical attack it’s a mortal sin?  What does he mean when he tells us to ‘turn the other cheek’?” 

Well, to answer these questions, we need to make a very important distinction: the distinction between those things which are morally wrong, those things which are morally legitimate, and those things which are morally virtuous.  For example, if an armed soldier refuses to defend an innocent civilian in battle, and allows that person to be attacked or killed, that soldier commits a sin!  His failure to help a defenseless person is morally wrong!  Listen to what Jesus (speaking through his Church) tells us in the Catechism.  This is from paragraph 2265 which deals with the 5th commandment (“Thou shalt not kill.”).  There we are told, “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others.  The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.  For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.”

That soldier could have done something—and SHOULD have done something—to save an innocent person from an unjust aggressor.  But he consciously and deliberately failed to carry out his duty, and therein lies his sin.

So, obviously, when Jesus says, “Offer [your other cheek],” he is not saying that we should permit the destruction of the innocent or the defenseless!

Nor is he saying that we should allow ourselves to be abused or killed!  That’s another common misunderstanding of the text.

The Catechism is very clear on this point: Self-defense is morally legitimate, as long as it’s proportional to the attack.  For example, if someone tries to slap your face without good reason, it would not be morally permissible to pull out a 44 Magnum and blow them away!  But it would be permissible to block the person’s hand and neutralize the attack— that’s a proportional defense.

The basis of this, believe it or not, is the idea that we should love ourselves!  Remember, Jesus said, “Love your neighbor AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF.”  Self-love is not bad, as long as it’s not prideful or egotistical or narcissistic.  We are to love ourselves because we are created in God’s image and likeness; we are to love ourselves because we are “temples of the Holy Spirit.”

Listen once again to the words of the Catechism.  These are taken from paragraph 2264: “Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality.  Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life.”

God has entrusted a “temple of the Holy Spirit” to each of us; consequently it’s morally permissible for us to defend our temple if it’s unjustly attacked. 

Leaving aside now these misunderstandings, what exactly is Jesus saying?  What are the challenges he’s giving us in this command to “turn the other cheek?”  Well, first of all, he’s challenging us to forgive others totally and completely; that means he’s challenging us to let go of any and every grudge.  He’s also challenging us not to seek vengeance; he’s challenging us to be patient with the shortcomings of others and to love everyone, even our enemies.  In short, Jesus is challenging us to do all those things we have great difficulty doing!

And he’s also challenging us in our willingness to endure unjust suffering for his sake and the sake of his Gospel: for example, the suffering that comes when a co-worker calls us “a religious fanatic” because we believe in the 10 Commandments; the suffering that comes when family members refuse to associate with us because we take our faith seriously and refuse to compromise our beliefs; the suffering that comes to the young Christian person who’s ostracized by his so-called friends because he won’t drink, or do drugs, or engage in promiscuous sexual activity.  These are examples of the “little martyrdoms” that Jesus challenges us to embrace every day in his name!

So the bottom line is this: It’s morally wrong NOT to defend the innocent, when you have a responsibility to do so; it’s morally legitimate to defend yourself from an unjust aggressor; but it’s morally virtuous to endure unjust sufferings and little martyrdoms each day, for the sake of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. 

Through the power of the Eucharist that we receive at this Mass, may God give us the special grace we need to be morally virtuous in this way, taking our ultimate motivation from Jesus himself, who said, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!  Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.”