Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rising beyond what is required

Have you ever wondered how honest Christians would be if they were to fill out a “Self Assessment Sheet” on how truthful they are or had been in living out their Christianity? Would they be in a state of indecision or confusion? Will they be tempted to put down “Excellent" or “Very Good” or will they be honest enough to put down “Poor”, “Hardly” or “Never”?

We all know that if they’d only be honest, they’ll never score high in this. And that may look as bad news but then there’s also good news and that is , that it doesn’t exist! And if ever there is, it’s never one that Jesus would have designed so that he’ll have an idea whether we should be getting the blessings or “benefits” for having become his followers or not.

That’s already a given. Christ the Lord has already offered this gift once and for all to those who truly believe in him. What needs to happen, however, is for us to continue to show forth in the flesh those characteristics which should aptly distinguish us from others. What needs to happen is for us to reflect through our actions and manifest in our lives our being part of the Beloved Community; an envisioned community where justice, mercy and forgiveness are meted out not as prescribed by the Law but as the outpouring of the Love founded in Christ Jesus. What needs to happen is for us to be the Christians that we are.

Lately, we had been hearing some of Jesus’ teachings, neatly lumped together in a setting known as The Sermon on the Mount. We have part of those sayings as our Gospel lesson for this Sunday (cf. Matthew 5:38-43). In this passage, we are enjoined to go further than what is required of us by the Law and to make that paradigm shift in the name of Love, “to infinity and beyond” thereby placing us “beyond” the margins of what we normally consider as convenient, tolerable and expedient.  

To illustrate this invitation to such a shift, Jesus used a well known rule of retributive justice called lex taliones or “law of retaliation” popularized by the phrase “an eye for an eye” or “a tooth for a tooth”.
Jesus tells his disciples, and us, for that matter, that, indeed, the law guarantees that in situations where a party is offended by, say, an injury to the eye, the just retribution should be equal to the incurred injury and nothing more or less; hence, the saying an eye for an eye. The said law, known to the people at that particular time and place, is thereby set in order to protect the parties involved from escalated forms of retribution. Under this rule, this means that once you’re hit in the arm by a club, you could hit back but only hit his arm; not by killing him. In this case, an arm for an arm.
Will that work? Probably yes but most likely, not. Our tendency is to use the principle of lex taliones and put an addendum to it as in lex taliones plus roughly translated as lex taliones and much more.  You got my eye? I’ll take two of yours and your nose and your ears and your head and much more, how’s that for retribution, huh?

Do you see now the advantage of lex taliones? It should guarantee fairness, yes; but it could also go wrong, way too wrong. And that’s where the limitations of the law can be so ineffective.  So Jesus dares his disciples with his new teaching. I could imagine him saying: “OK. We all know about this wonderful law of retributive justice. We’ve all heard the famous “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. We know that’s  fair. But we also know things could go wrong. So what if you just don’t resist the evildoer, huh?

Jesus used three common practices that could be viewed either from the lens of retributive justice or from the lens of love; a different approach and outside of the usual box of “convenience, tolerance and expedience”.

In his first example, Jesus says: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” In Jesus’ cultural setting, getting struck on the right cheek usually mean being hit with the backside of someone’s right hand which, in itself, was an insult and would imply the recipient’s inferiority. It could also mean being hit with the palm of someone’s left hand; an allusion to further degradation brought about by the ‘unclean’ hand. Either of the two would have been an extremely humiliating insult, not to mention an act of violence. 

The language of retributive justice tells you that if someone strikes your right cheek, strike him back too, also in his right cheek. Lex taliones tells you that’s the fair way of dealing with the subject. But Jesus knew it does not have to stop there. He knew that the language of love and forgiveness could bring about a much healthier and more meaningful relationship than by just calling it even. So he says: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

The second example stems out of another familiar norm in Jesus’ days.  In that cultural milieu, most people wore two garments, the coat, worn next to the skin and the cloak, worn on top of the coat and serves as blanket and other uses as well. The coat and cloak were then symbolic of what an average person basically has. Jesus used this practice to illustrate his dissent from the said fair rule of retributive justice. According to the rule of lex taliones  if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, you should give your coat. Coat for a coat. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s fair, according to the law. But then Jesus pushes the envelope and wants us to take this “to “infinity and beyond”, figuratively, that is, and said: if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well”.  Give him more than what the rule of retributive justice would most likely suggest. Jesus says “Not just your coat but your cloak as well”.

In the third example, Jesus made reference to another common practice that, as in the two previous scenarios, could also be viewed either from the lens of the law or the lens of love. As an example of what it means to be “lorded over”, Roman soldiers at the time were allowed to subject civilians into carrying their military gear for up to one mile. This was clearly set by Roman law. Needless to say, many civilians who were made to do this were not very happy about it. It was believed then that a Jew would take the exact distance of one mile from his house and mark it. On those “one mile” occasions, it had been observed that once he reached the one mile mark, he drops the gear. Period. No more, no less. You’ll get the mile that the language of law would require and nothing more.

Jesus, however, tells us to do that “second mile”, symbolic of any add-ons given not by virtue of prescriptions or ordinance but because of the love from the heart of the giver. This “second mile” manifests itself in cases such as when we set our foot and out of our way to help the distressed; when we remember as our own the welfare of others while we kneel to offer our prayers before the Everliving God and when we stretch forth our helping hands to raise the fallen. We are invited by no less than Christ the Lord to make this "second mile" in the discharge of our respective duties to God and our neighbors.

Indeed, that paradigm shift is achievable. If ever there was that "Self Assessment Sheet" we can score high. But for now, we are hereby enjoined that we should strive all the more so that our lives as Christ’s  followers will truly reflect the character of the new person living in us, one whose foundation in life is none other than Christ Jesus, the chief cornerstone. With this cornerstone, we can then go beyond that which the language of law directs us, proclaim the language of love and rise beyond what is required.

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