Category Archives: scripture

Book Review: Short Stories by Jesus, The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi

Short Stories by Jesus, The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, by Amy-Jill Levine, HarperCollins, New York, 2014, 313 pages.


“Religion has been defined to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.  We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting.  Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.” p. 3

In “Short Stories by Jesus, The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi“, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, seeks to determine the “original challenge” of eleven parables told by Jesus in the Gospels.    Levine bases her presentation on three premises:

  1. When Jesus originally told it, each parable had an “original provocation” or challenge for its original first century listeners.
  2. The Gospel authors were the among the first interpreters of the parables, and in the process “domesticated” the parables, diminishing the “original provocation.”
  3. Jesus’s parables each can have multiple meanings.

Levine, a Jew, also counters any unjustified vilifying of Judaism in contemporary interpretations of the parables she considers in her book.  The parables she considers include: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, The Lost Son, The Good Samaritan, The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Yeast, The Pearl of Great Price, The Mustard Seed, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Some Problems

Discerning Christians will quickly realize a problem with the second premise, that the Gospel authors have “domesticated” the parables, or have watered down their original challenge.  Levine says that Luke “tames the parables” [p. 277] and that “Jesus was more interested in how we love our neighbor than how we get to heaven” [p. 199].  When considering the parable of the Lost Son [Luke 15:11-32], for example, she dismisses Luke’s interpretation through Jesus’s words, that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”[Luke 15:7] and says the first century Jews who heard this story first would have heard another challenge.

My response to this claim of “domestication” is this:  I’ve realized that if ever I’ve failed to find sufficient challenge in the Gospels, it’s because I’ve failed to fully and sufficiently reflect on my own desperate situation, not because the Gospel has “domesticated” the words of Jesus.  Moreover, I cannot pit Jesus’s concern for our temporal well-being against his concern for our eternal well-being.  As a Christian, I believe that his concerned spanned the temporal and eternal and that there is no reason to suspect that his parables were limited to his temporal concerns.

The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son

While I dispute Levine’s contention that Luke, Matthew, and Mark have domesticated the parables, I do agree that those stories might have multiple meanings.  Levine’s treatment of the parable of the Lost Son is intriguing, and while she ignores Luke’s interpretation, her own does not contradict his, and in fact, complements it.

The Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt van Rijn, c1669
The Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt van Rijn, c1669

She does not consider the parable of the Lost Son separate from the two shorter parables that precede it, the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Lost Coin.  Her contention is that the stories are about “counting and searching for the lost”, she notes that “the owner spots the missing sheep among the hundred, and the woman spots the missing coin among the ten.  The father, with only two sons, was unable to count correctly.” [p. 45].

We also learn from Levine the following details:

  • When the original listeners first heard Jesus say, “There was a man who had two sons“, they would have probably remembered the many famous biblical stories of two sons, Adam’s Cain and Abel; Abraham’s Ishmael and Isaac; Isaac’s Esau and Jacob; and Joseph’s Manasseh and Ephraim.  They would certainly have wanted to identify with the younger of the sons, but in this story, the older son is faithful, while the younger son is profligate.  This is a  provocation, since “the idea that an elder brother – Cain, Ishmael, Esau, the second lost son- is sympathetic again prompts a challenge to our expectations.”
  • The younger son never expressed contrition for his sins.  Oh, he does say, ” I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you“, but he never actually says that “I have sinned”, only that this what he will say to his father, and he never actually does.  Moreover the phrase “I have sinned against heaven and against you” was famously told to Moses by Pharaoh in the Exodus story [Exodus 10:16], and we all know how sincere that apology was…
  • The story of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin both end with a party, but the story of the Lost Son does not.  Look closely.  While there is a big party, the story ends with an inconclusive and heartbreaking conversation in a field between a father and son.
  • The story of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, the shepherd and woman both search diligently for what they lost.  The father of the Lost Son does not search for his younger son, and does not even search out his older son to tell him the good news of the return of the younger son.  Remember that the older son returned  from the fields quite surprised by the party.  The father had not shared the good news with the older son – he had to ask [Luke 15:25].  The father only searches for the older son when he belatedly realizes at the end of the story that he’s the one that’s really lost to him.

So, in the end, it’s the elder son who is lost and must be sought after.  In Levine’s words,  “we too are to seek the lost and make every effort to find them.  Indeed, we are not only to seek; we are to take notice of who might be lost, even when immediately present. [p. 278]”    As you can see, this is different than the lesson of repentance and radical mercy that we usually associate with this parable.

The Strong Points

The book has several strong points.   I enjoyed Levine’s exposition of the context of first century Palestine and learned new things about tax collectors, Pharisees, widows, judges, merchants, inheritance and even mustard trees of those days.  After reading the book I think that I also have a healthier view of first century Judaism than I had before.

Summary

Short Stories by Jesus” certainly proved provocative to this Christian.  While I cannot agree with her that the Gospel writers “domesticated” the parables, I do find in her work some good insights into the original context of the Gospels, as well as other interpretations of the parables of Jesus that are worthy of consideration.


 

About Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, Tennessee; affiliated professor at the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations at Cambridge; and a self-described “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” She is the author of The Misunderstood Jew and the editor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament.   From http://www.harpercollins.com/cr-103689/amy-jill-levine

 

 

 

A Layman’s Defense of the Holy Trinity

Consider an infinitely deep well of life giving water.  One can draw water from deeper and deeper in the well, but one will never plumb the depths of it.  A doctrinal Mystery like the Holy Trinity is similar.  One can grow in an intellectual and experiential understanding of such a mystery, but we will never, on this side of eternity, plumb the depths of it.  Moreover, our intellectual experience – our “knowing” – can serve our “loving”.  That is, an intellectual understanding of the Holy Trinity, as paltry as it may be, can lead us to love God more deeply.  So let’s consider the Holy Trinity.

Statement of Doctrine

The “Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church” offers this concise expression the Church’s belief in the Holy Trinity:

 “The Church expresses her Trinitarian faith by professing a belief in the oneness of God in whom there are three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three divine Persons are only one God because each of them equally possesses the fullness of the one and indivisible divine nature. They are really distinct from each other by reason of the relations which place them in correspondence to each other. The Father generates the Son; the Son is generated by the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Compendium 481

The nineteenth century Catholic theologian, Frank Sheed, the founder of the first Catholic Evidence Guild, once wrote,

“There is but one divine nature, one divine mind, one divine will.  The three Persons each use the one mind to know with, the one will to love with.  For there is but one absolute divine nature.  Thus there are not three Gods, but one God.  The Christian revelation cannot allow the faintest derogation from pure monotheism.  The three Persons then, are not separate.  But they are distinct.2  

Indeed, the Compendium continues:

Inseparable in their one substance, the three divine Persons are also inseparable in their activity. The Trinity has one operation, sole and the same. In this one divine action, however, each Person is present according to the mode which is proper to him in the Trinity.” Compendium 491

Holy Trinity, Andrei Rublev. (1370-1430). Moscow
Holy Trinity, Andrei Rublev. (1370-1430). Moscow

Many people accuse the Church of believing in three gods, and it is not difficult to see how this doctrinal expression could be misinterpreted if one adopts the common meanings of the words “person”, “nature”, and “distinct”.  After all, I am a “person” and you are a “person”.  You have attributes that I lack, and I have attributes that you lack, so we are distinct from each other.  But there’s a difference with a divine Person.  A divine Person, by the Church’s definition, posesses a divine nature that has all perfection; a divine Person lacks nothing.  So the three divine Persons are not distinct from each other in the sense that they each possess attributes that the others lack.  That is why the Church claims that they are “distinct from each other by reason of the relations” between them.  And let’s be careful about using the word “possess”.  You may say that I as a person possess some truth, but a divine Person is truth.  You may say that I as a person possess some good, but a divine Person is Goodness.  And you may say that I as a person am sometimes loving, but God is love.  There is an existential difference between a Divine person and a human person and how each “possesses” its nature.

Saintly Speculation

Let’s look into how the Persons of the Trinity could be distinct then.  St. Anselm, writing in his Proslogium8, speculated that the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, was the “Word” or the self-expression of the Father.  Since this self-expression or self-image is perfect truth, lacking nothing, it possesses the Nature of God.  St. Anselm further states that the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son.  This love is perfect, lacking nothing, and thus possesses the Nature of God.

Some Scripture

We also distinguish the three Persons of the Holy Trinity because the Sacred Scriptures do.  Moreover, when all of the scriptures are taken into account, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity fits the scriptural data very well.  Here is a list – certainly not exhaustive – of scriptural verses that are often used to argue for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  All scriptural texts are from the Revised Standard Version (RSV)7.

Hints in the Old Testament

  • God speaking of himself in the plural form:
    • Gen. 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...”
    • Gen. 3:22 “Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us...”
    • Gen. 11:7 “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language...”
  •  the prophesies of a divine messiah
    •  Isaiah 9:6 “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;  and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.‘”
    • Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman’u-el.(“God is with us.”)”
    • Psalm 109(110):1 The LORD says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.‘”
  • the personification of divine wisdom
    • Proverbs 8:22-31  “…When he established the heavens, I was there…
    • Wisdom 7:21-25 “And now I understand everything, hidden or visible, for Wisdom, the designer of all things, has instructed me…For Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things.  She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; so nothing impure can find its way into her.
    •  Wisdom 8:1-8 “…Strongly she reaches from one end of the world to the other and she governs the whole world for its good…She enhances her noble birth by sharing God’s life, for the Master of All has always loved her.  Indeed, she shares the secrets of God’s knowledge, and she chooses what he will do….”

The “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Trinitarian Formula) in the New Testament

  • Luke 1:35 “And the angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called  holy, the Son of God.'”
  • Matthew 3:16-17 “And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'”
  • John 14:16-17 “And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.”
  •  Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”

Trinitarian References in the Epistles

  • 1 Peter 1:1-2 “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappado’cia, Asia, and Bithyn’ia, chosen and destined by God the Father and  sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”
  • 2Cor. 13:14 “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
  • Eph. 1:3-14 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth….In him you also…were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

God the Father in the New Testament

  • Matthew 5:16,48 “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven…You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
  • John 1:12 “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; “
  • John 5:18 “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God.

God the Son in the New Testament

  • John 1:14-18  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. “
  • Hebrews 1:2-4 “but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.”
  • Colossians 1:13-16 “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation;  for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.”

God the Holy Spirit in the New Testament

  • Acts 5:3 “But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?”
  • 1 Cor. 3:16 “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
  • 1 Cor. 2:10 “God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”

A Common Objection Overcome

One common objection to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity cites John 14:28, “You heard me say to you, `I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I..”  If the Father is greater than Jesus, the objectors state, then Jesus certainly could not be Divine.  Catholics can respond by saying that Jesus was referring to his human nature only when he said that the Father was greater than he.

Some Historical Heresies6

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was articulated by the Catholic Church over time with greater and greater specificity  as it was challenged.  Here are some of the  historical challenges to the doctrine:

  • Modalism (i.e. Sabellianism, Noetianism and Patripassianism) …taught that the three persons of the Trinity as different “modes” of the Godhead. Adherants believed that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not distinct personalities, but different modes of God’s self-revelation. A typical modalist approach is to regard God as the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Spirit in sanctification. In other words, God exists as Father, Son and Spirit in different eras, but never as triune. Stemming from Modalism, Patripassianism believed that the Father suffered as the Son.
  • Tritheism…Tritheism confessses the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three independent divine beings; three separate gods who share the ‘same substance’. This is a common mistake because of misunderstanding of the use of the term ‘persons’ in defining the Trinity.
  • Arianism …taught that the preexistent Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creatures but denied his fully divine status. The Arian controversy was of major importance in the development of Christology during the fourth century and was addressed definitely in the Nicene Creed.
  • Docetism …taught that Jesus Christ as a purely divine being who only had the “appearance” of being human. Regarding his suffering, some versions taught that Jesus’ divinity abandoned or left him upon the cross while other claimed that he only appeared to suffer (much like he only appeared to be human).
  • Ebionitism …taught that while Jesus was endowed with particular charismatic gifts which distinguished him from other humans but nonetheless regarded Him as a purely human figure.
  • Macedonianism …that that the Holy Spirit is a created being.
  • Adoptionism …taught that Jesus was born totally human and only later was “adopted” – either at his baptism or at his resurrection – by God in a special (i.e. divine) way.
  • Partialism …taught that Father, Son and Holy Spirit together are components of the one God. This led them to believe that each of the persons of the Trinity is only part God, only becoming fully God when they come together.

I originally wrote this post on the now defunct http://cegguam.org.


References

  1. Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, USCCC Publishing, Washington DC, 2006, also http://www.vatican.va/archive/compendium_ccc/documents/archive_2005_compendium-ccc_en.html
  2. A Map of Life, By Frank Sheed, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1994
  3. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, by Dr. Ludwig Ott, TAN Books and Publishers, Rockford Illinois, 1974
  4. A Tour of the Summa, by Msgr. Paul J. Glenn, TAN Books and Publishers, Rockford Illinois, 1978
  5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, DoubleDay, New York, 1995.
  6. Trinitarian Heresies, http://www.monergism.com/Trinitarian%20Heresies.html, retrieved July 4, 2010.
  7. Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Holy Bible. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/r/rsv/
  8. St. Anselm’s Proslogium, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-proslogium.html
  9. St. Augustine’s On the Holy Trinity, http://thriceholy.net/Texts/augustinef.html
  10. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica,  Question 27, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1027.htm

Does “turn the other cheek” mean that Christians are to be doormats?

“But I say to you, Do not resist  one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” Mt. 5:39

By his words and example, did Jesus teach us to be completely passive in our personal encounters with evil?

Most teachers of passivity purport to draw from two sources for such an interpretation of our Lord’s teaching:  The “Suffering Servant” narratives in Isaiah 53, and the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7).  

The Suffering Servant

The teaching of passivity is based, in great part, on The Suffering Servant (the Servant of YHWH) in Isaiah 53:

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,   yet he opened not his mouth;  like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,   and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” Isaiah 53:7

The Church has long considered the rich, prophetic symbolism of the Suffering Servant narratives to be a prefiguring, or prophesy, of the Passion of Christ.  It is wrong, however, to apply this text thoughtlessly to the entirety of Christ’s public ministry, or even uncritically to Christ’s passion.  For example, our Lord was not exactly silent when on trial in front of the High Priest, and especially when he was struck by one of the high priest’s officers:

“Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret.  Why do you question Me?  Question those who have heard what I spoke to them; they know what I said.” When He had said this, one of the officers standing nearby struck Jesus, saying, “Is that the way You answer the high priest?” Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?”  John 18:20-23

The Sermon on the Mount

Others arrive at a passive interpretation of “Do not resist evil” from some words spoken by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount.  Let’s consider these words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist  one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;  and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;  and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”  Mt. 5:38-42

Consider the first part of verse 39:  “But I say to you, Do not resist  one who is evil.”  

Here is the verse in the original Koine Greek:

mt5-39a

 We can get to the heart of the matter by considering the word St. Matthew uses for “resist”, which is the Greek word, “antistenai”.

"antistenai"
“antistenai”

New Testament scholar Walter Wink, in his book, “Jesus and Nonviolence, A Third Way” [p.11], says:

“The Greek word is made up of two parts: anti, a word still used in English for “against,” and histēmi, a verb that in its noun form (stasis) means violent rebellion, armed revolt, sharp dissention. In the Greek Old Testament, antistēnai is used primarily for military encounters—44 out of 71 times. It refers specifically to the moment two armies collide, steel on steel, until one side breaks and flees.”

St. Paul also uses the same word, “antistenai”, in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians.  There he uses a dramatic military metaphor to urge the Ephesians to resist evil, but with the armor and weapons of God:

“Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist [antistenai] on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground [stenai].” Ephesians 6:13 [1]

An accurate translation of Matthew 5:39a, would then be, “Do not respond in kind to those who do evil to you.”  That vastly differs from the phrase, “Do not resist evil”, in that it allows and even invites us to vigorously and creatively respond to evil in our personal encounters with it, albeit nonviolently.

On a side note, we also see see that the direct object of verse 39a is not the generic, unspecific “evil” in “Do not resist evil,” but rather, “do not resist the evil person.”

Peter and Paul Weigh In

Saints Peter and Paul confirm this interpretation.  For example, read St. Paul’s summary of the Sermon on the Mount in the 12th chapter of his letter to the Romans:

“…Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.Romans 12:19-20

and from the First Letter of Peter:

Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.”  1 Peter 3:9

In other words, in response to evil, we are not to do evil, we are not to retaliate, we are not to seek revenge, we are not to revile, and we are to have mercy on the enemy.  Our Lord places no restriction on us whatsoever, however, from pursuing justice and defending our lives.

“Turn the other cheek…”

In his public ministry, Jesus often pushed people from their comfort zones into places from which the only means of escape was some serious soul-searching.  It is not surprising, then, that he taught that form of non-violent response to the lowly and oppressed who followed him.  Do not forget his advice to his disciples,  “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves [Mt. 10:16].”

Our Lord give three specific examples to the poor people listening to him on the mountain: “Turn the other cheek,” “let him have your cloak as well,” and “go with him two miles.”  Each example gave those who were listening a way to resist evil without resorting to violence.  Let’s consider each in turn.[2]

“if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…”

Did you ever wonder why Jesus explicitly mentioned the right cheek?  How does one, in the right-handed world of first century Palestine, where the use of one’s left hand was often taboo, strike another on the right cheek?  With a right-handed back slap, of course.  Jesus was speaking directly to a poor, downtrodden and colonized people, and a back slap was a humiliating action of a master toward a slave, of a Roman to a Jew, of a landowner to a tenant farmer.  It was meant to degrade.  Now, after having been slapped on the right cheek by a superior’s right hand, presenting the left cheek would effectively force the master to backslap again using his left hand, which was taboo, or to strike with his right fist, which would be the act of a peer, not a master.  So, while risky, presenting the left cheek after a back slap would help the oppressed person recover a bit of his God-given dignity without having to resort to violence.

“If any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well…”

In the debtor society of first century Palestine, the lowly and landless did not sue each other, but rather, could be sued by the powerful.  To take off the second and last piece of clothing in the public court of that time would make one naked, but the greater shame and embarrassment would not be born by the person being sued, but rather, the wealthy person suing him.  Remember the great length to which Noah’s sons, Shem and Japheth went to in order to avoid the shame of seeing their father naked. [Gen. 9:23].

“If any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles…”

It would not have been uncommon for those listening to Jesus on the mountain – the men at least – to have been forced to carry the gear of a Roman legionary or an auxiliary for up to a mile.  It was generally frowned upon, if not forbidden, for a legionary to require a colonized person to carry such a pack for more than that distance, and in fact, this was eventually codified into law.  So, by cheerfully “going the extra mile”, one would place the legionary or auxiliary in the uncomfortable position of possibly facing disciplinary action by his superiors.   The soldier would probably prefer to get his pack back, but how on earth would he ask for it back without losing his pride?

 Examples from the Scriptures

The words of Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount do not repudiate His own examples of resisting evil, or the examples set by heroes of the Old Testament.

Jesus resisted the evil of Satan in the desert [ Mt. 4:1-11];  he resisted the evil of the men who would stone the woman caught in adultery [John 8:1-11];  he drove the merchants and their animals from the temple [Mt. 21:12];  and he resisted the evil of the Pharisee’s disciples who would trap him with the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” [ Mt. 22:15-22].  

 St. Paul Resisted Evil
St. Paul escapes Damascus in a basket, 12th/13th century (mosaic)
St. Paul escapes Damascus in a basket, 12th/13th century (mosaic)

St. Paul used his Roman citizenship to escape an evil beating and to appeal the case against him to the governors Felix and Festus, and ultimately to Caesar [Acts 22-24].  He defended himself in front of King Agrippa [Acts 26], and he even plotted a clever escape from the evil plans of his adversaries in Damascus [Acts 9:25] by having himself lowered from the city walls in a basket.

The Heroes of the Old Testament Resisted Evil

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah resisted the evil command of Pharaoh to murder Hebrew baby boys [Exodus 1:15-20].  The people of Israel boldly asked the Egyptians for reparations before leaving Egypt. [Exodus 12:35-36].  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed′nego refused to worship the image that King ebuchadnez′zar had set up and so were thrown into the fiery furnace [Daniel 3].  Daniel resisted the evil order of King Darius to pray to him alone, and was consequently thrown into the lion’s den [Daniel 6:10-28].  Queen Esther risked her life and broke the law to approach the King Ahasuerus  on behalf of her people, whose annihilation had been ordered [Esther 4-5].  And the priests of Nob lost their lives for resisting the evil of Saul by giving the consecrated bread to David and his men to eat [1 Samuel 21-22].

The Teaching of the Church

We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not. [CCC 2263]

and

Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality.  Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow…Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.”   [CCC 2264]

and

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.” [CCC 2264]

Conclusion

It is clear that in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that we are not to resort to violence, retaliation, or revenge in our personal encounters of the evil of others.  In short, we are to resist evil in a way that prevents us from becoming evil ourselves.

 

Endnotes

[1]  Wink elaborates more on this in his book,”Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination“,(Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1984) p. 185:

“What the translators have not noted, however, is how frequently anthistemi is used as a military term. Resistance implies “counteractive aggression,” a response to hostilities initiated by someone else. Liddell-Scott defines anthistemi as to “set against esp. in battle, withstand.” Ephesians 6:13 is exemplary of its military usage: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand [antistenai, lit., to draw up battle ranks against the enemy] on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm [stenai, lit., to close ranks and continue to fight].” The term is used in the LXX primarily for armed resistance in military encounters (44 out of 71 times). Josephus uses anthistemi for violent struggle 15 out of 17 times, Philo 4 out of 10. As James W. Douglass notes, Jesus’ answer is set against the backdrop of the burning question of forcible resistance to Rome. In that context, “resistance” could have only one meaning: lethal violence.-16 In short, antistenai means more in Matt. 5:39a than simply to “stand against” or “resist.”” It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection.”

[2]  See “Jesus and Nonviolence, a Third Way“, by Walter Wink, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2003, pp 14-27.