The Gospel reading is the last ten verses of the first chapter from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It concludes with a strange request that the followers of Jesus are to be as perfect as God is perfect. The preceding verses are tough enough to hear and to live, but this being God-Perfect is asking quite a bit. The translation more properly means ‘aim for perfection’. The word for sin ‘Hamartia,’ means missing the mark, as in archery. The message is to set our standards high, even when we risk missing the mark.
This reading continues the Sermon on the Mount from last week. It is the part known as the “antitheses”: “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you.” Here two antitheses are drawn out. The first is taken from the Torah: “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” (Lev 24:19). The second is a maxim that combines the commandment to love the neighbour from our first reading with an injunction not found anywhere in the Old Testament but representing much of what is taught or assumed there, namely, that one should hate the enemies of God and of Israel.
Jesus is not contradicting the Old Testament but is radicalising it, going much further though in the same direction.
Being struck on the right cheek entails either a backhand slap from a right-handed person or an open-handed slap from a left-handed person. The left hand in the Middle East is reserved for toilet functions. It is a serious insult to place that hand on the table, use it in eating, or extend it to others. Both slaps are insulting.
Having to resort to courts in the Middle East is very shameful. Arguments should be settled long before this stage. Jesus’ recommendation to yield more (the tunic) than the plaintiff asks (the cloak) is astounding. The cloak was absolutely essential not only as a piece of clothing but as a sleeping bag. To give this up too would leave one naked, a shameful condition to say the least.
Lastly, it was legal and customary for soldiers to force citizens to carry their military gear for one mile. In first-century, occupied Palestine, this soldier frequently was a fellow Israelite who turned mercenary. Carrying the gear was humiliation enough; being forced to do so by a traitorous fellow citizen was even more humiliating.
Paul uses many images for the church (garden, building, etc.), but here he uses the image of temple for the first time in his writings. “Temple” brings out the point that the church is the place where the Spirit of God is present. The church does not consist of bricks and mortar but of people; nor is it primarily an organization or institution.
Once again the teaching of Jesus sets the bar very high for his followers. The Sermon on the Mount may seem baffling or even impossible but the message is that God wants to challenge us to be the very best that we can be and to learn how to love in the manner that Christ taught us by word and by example.