Moses did not easily come to the Wisdom and understanding he is so sure of in today's first reading. He had to work hard at it. Even so, it is only a small step in the right direction! For while he invites the community to holiness of life, expressed in the refusal to hate, to be two faced or to be imprisoned by the need for revenge, he is still upholding club rules, which have yet to find their way to the world outside the community.
Over time, we begin to see hints that this teaching will be replaced by something better. And today's Gospel text from St Matthew is a fine example of this. So far, we have learned that balance demands an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This teaching was a major step towards controlling violence. Previously, the Law of Lamech prevailed, 'I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.' (Genesis 4,23) There was no equality in inflicted damage. But under the eye for an eye dictum, retribution was carefully measured.
The teaching of Jesus supersedes this now and disciples need to be careful that we don't go back to the older ways of Moses or Lamech! We are better supported in this regard when appreciate how clever the teaching of Jesus really is. He gives three examples of how to be creative when faced with violence in His own day. These clever
actions are designed to change the balance of power from the violent in favour of the non-violent. Walter Wink, in his "Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination", writes, 'Turn your cheek, thus indicating to the one who backhands you that their attempt to shame you into servility has failed. Strip naked and parade out of court, thus taking the momentum out of the law and the whole debt economy and flipping them. Walk a second mile, surprising the occupation troops with a sudden challenge to their control.' p.185
There is an adventure in the teaching of Jesus and we don't need to be afraid that if we apply the same creativity to our own situation that we will be more vulnerable. The danger for the afraid is that we might talk ourselves out of following this light, or water it down so much as to make it worthless.
The Parable of the Snake is helpful here. The snake hears the stunning teaching of Jesus from a wandering preacher and immediately adopts a life of total non-violence. He will bite no one. When the local children realise that he won't bite, they begin to make fun of him and beat him with sticks every day. The snake is near death when the preacher returns and asks how he is doing. The snake tells the preacher of his heroic actions, expecting to be praised. But the preacher says, " I told you not to bite. I didn't say you couldn't rattle and hiss!"
We are always praising heroic Christians who have laid down their life for their faith. Perhaps it will prove wiser, over time, to praise clever Christians who are able to find new ways to bring non-violence and universal loving into stubborn hearts and stubborn systems. These amazing women and men hold these values with an inner strength. They combine them with experience and their knowledge of science and art. They show us how unseen paths open beneath our feet and how to surprise the worldly wise to new ways of living.