This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 5:38–48:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome? It’s a condition which plagues people who have achieved some success in life, who feel that their success has somehow been unearned and who therefore fear being exposed as a fraud. Perhaps we all go through this to some extent, and perhaps more or less rationally at times. For instance, in my early life friends got me a contract job for which I had no formal qualification through a process of, shall we say, burnishing my resumé a bit. They knew the job and knew I could do it, but I spent the first several weeks of the job fearing exposure every day.
Only after the initial contract got extended did I finally realize that I did the job competently, and that my friends had been right — and that no one really believed the resumé in the first place. It was a 90-day at-will contract, after all; they could have fired me at any time, which made the risk low for giving me a chance. In the end, I managed to stick around for a few years until cutbacks eliminated my group.
One way that some compensate for their insecurity regarding their competence is to put up a pretense of super-competence. We cover our fear and our lack of insight by cloaking ourselves in unearned authority, and in impossible omniscience. We pretend to be wise in order not to be challenged, and hope that we can bluff our way through. That puts us in position to make judgments without full knowledge, and without the foresight to see how those judgments will play out. And if we do that long enough, we might begin to truly believe in our assumed wisdom, when a bit of recognition of our limitations might serve us better.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul warned about this assumption of wisdom, even among those who might otherwise have a real claim to it. As we see in our second reading, Paul warns that those who do not grasp those limitations will get entangled by them, and that their judgment will come to naught.
If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God, for it is written: God catches the wise in their own ruses, and again: The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.
In today’s Gospel we read one of the most famous exhortations on justice and mercy from Jesus, in which He instructs us to put aside justice for mercy. It’s important to recall that the “eye for an eye” instruction was itself a demand for temperance in pursuit of justice. This predates the Bible, appearing in the Code of Hammurabi, and explicitly warned against the taking of unjust compensation for a wrong committed. Its appearance in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus in different forms had the same principle in mind. The punishment meted out for a crime should not exceed the crime itself, but equal it as far as is practical.
In Leviticus, the Lord warns Moses about exceeding the bounds of justice for revenge. “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart,” He tells Moses in our first reading. “Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us of the principle of justice along with our own limitations and our own sinful nature. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, do we wish to harm them even if they have harmed us? And who precisely are our neighbors? If we mean the community within which we live, then we need to treat even the errant with love while dispensing justice. But if we define “neighbor” as any potential child of God no matter how wayward, then we are called to a higher sense of mercy, in part because of our own imperfections and limited wisdom.
Jesus’ teaching goes beyond the practical applications of justice and mercy in jurisprudence, however. He is teaching us about the formation of our hearts, where our will and intellect meet and where we invite the Holy Spirit to dwell. Do we see our neighbors and strangers only transactionally? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth? Or do we see them as ourselves, imperfect though we are, as beloved of God?
If we do, then we can accept them in love and evangelize God’s word with them. To get there, though, we must recognize ourselves in their imperfections, which means stripping away our own illusions about ourselves — not just as imposters to wisdom, but also as imposters to degradation and unworthiness too. We are not perfect, as we know through our own sin, but we are not worthless either. Every one of us is beloved of God, and God seeks to call us all back to Him in fidelity and love.
The Lord gives us all gifts to use in this world, and we can choose how to use them, whether in His service or not. But if we place our trust in the Lord, we should not have anxiety about our place in His plan. It is that simplicity of spirit and trust that will put our minds at ease, and that humility and recognition of limitations that will allow us to rely on Him for the truly wisest path.
To the wise and the foolish, and to the rest in between struggling in anxiety and despair, Paul writes this reminder: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” Let that be enough, for it is everything.
The front page image is a detail from “Calling of the Apostles,” a fresco by Domenico Ghirlandio, c. 1481, in the Sistine Chapel. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.