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When someone strikes you on your cheek . . .

Jesus, who came into the world precisely to conquer evil, teaches us today an astounding strategy: ‘defeat evil by surrendering to it; triumph over evil by yielding it the right way, by allowing it to triumph over you.’ What is this? Is this not a catastrophic course of action? Or even worse, is this not a treachery to the very cause of God, which asks us to seek the truth and long for justice? 

Today’s Gospel presents a series of examples of a strategy of not resisting 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.” This sounds very counterintuitive, doesn’t it? 

As a child, I personally had an occasion to check the efficacy of this Gospel teaching. When I was in the fifth grade, I participated in a ten-day summer retreat with dozens of other altar servers from my native parish. During one of the bonfires, a boy who was five years older than me, for no special reason, confronted me and slapped me on the cheek in front of the other boys. From my early childhood I was an altar server and attended masses quite frequently, even during weekdays. I was a diligent listener of Jesus’ words during the masses including this one: “when someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.” So when the boy hit me, I turned my head without hesitation and showed my attacker the other cheek as Jesus asked to do. And what? The boy slapped me on the other cheek as well. It was too much for me! Although I was much smaller, I rushed at him with tears and my fists. I tried to defend myself until the other boys took him away. I learned the hard way that Jesus’ strategy didn’t work. 

Let’s think for a moment. What requires more courage and selflessness: to be a disciple of Jesus as he taught us to be or to fight violence with violence, evil with evil? Is sometimes a person’s willingness to fight not motivated by the satisfaction of the brute craving to win? We think that we are serving God, whereas our real enterprise, our real motivation, hidden even from ourselves, is to make ourselves appear greater in our own eyes and those of others. In this way, we frustrate the work of God, whose deepest endeavor is the restoration of man to a state of harmony in truth.  

The principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” mentioned by Jesus, was the dominant principle of the Old Testament. It was and it still indeed stimulates people to become aware of the need for justice. This principle is a step forward in the policy of blind, bloodthirsty desire for revenge that dominated many in ancient times, including the sophisticated Greek culture. But this principle is not the last word in the matter. Jesus is offering us something that achieves a far more effective and constructive outcome: the willingness to surprise our adversary with compassion, with love, with forgiveness. This is justice according to the Heart of Jesus. The strategy of not answering evil with evil places evildoers at the risk of being converted and introduces not only to that person but also to members of his family, others involved, and the entire society the most divine of principles: self-giving at all cost. After my enemy slapped both of my cheeks, he will run out of cheeks to slap, and perhaps he will be ashamed. After I have given him both my tunic and coat, he will perhaps learn to have pity on me. If I go the second mile with him, perhaps this will give both the needed time and shared experience to pass from animosity to friendship. Perhaps all of his aggressiveness toward me comes from lack of imagination, from a real ignorance concerning what other courses of action were available to him beside injustice and violence. Perhaps my open hands and silent mouth become the most eloquent of teachers, and I will have won a brother in the Lord. Returning to my experience from childhood, I didn’t understand Jesus’ strategy as mentioned above. Although, I showed my attacker both cheeks, I didn’t have the wisdom and patience to wait until he was remorseful. Jesus’ “strategy” works. 

 The ultimate goodness of the person, even of an adversary, was always what motivated the apostolic work of the St. John Paul II. I especially remember one instance when a Protestant reporter during the pope’s visit to Czech Republic in 1995 tried to provoke him by reminding him of the wars in Europe between Catholic and Protestant countries in the 16th and 17th centuries. These wars produced many Catholic martyrs and some victims on the Protestant side as well. In his reply to the reporter, St. John Paul II admitted that the path of dialogue, instead of violence, gradually matured among the nations, and it took a lot of suffering on both sides to bring about a better way of resolving issues. That answer made the reporter speechless. The pope’s adversary came with the sword and the pope, instead of reacting in a similar manner, simply knocked out the sword from the reporter’s hand. 

Such an attitude, the attitude that takes into consideration not only a peaceful outcome of the confrontation with an enemy, but also, or above all, the goodness of the enemy is not for novices in following Jesus. To think and act in this way, we have to turn on the high gear since this message is neither easy to catch, nor to practice. It demands a profound wisdom, prudence and determination, Above all, it demands a real Christian love, the kind of love which is described in the second part of today’s Gospel: the love of one’s enemies. Meditating on this would be too much for today so let’s return to this in three years, in January 2026, when the same Gospel of the 7th Sunday of the Ordinary Time will be presented to us in the three-year liturgical cycle. I hope we will still be around, certainly older, and maybe more mature and more ready to face this part of Jesus’ teaching. 

So today we discussed Jesus’ call to not resist the evil one. However, there is always a risk that my silence and my lack of resistance could be taken as an invitation to even greater violence and that my enemy will move on and slap the next man’s cheek. But it was exactly the very risk our Lord took in coming to our world, in handing himself over to us, and in opening his arms on the Cross. We are called to act as Jesus taught us and as he acted. The law of the Christ is always an extension of God’s law for himself, that is, we can say, the very Law of God’s nature. He allowed his blood to be shed and what has happened? Its sprinkling transformed the face of the soldier holding the lance during his crucifixion. Jesus’ strategy worked. 

Then exactly what does Jesus mean by not resisting evil? It means “you allow evil to spend its fury and show its finiteness; you allow it to exhaust itself; you allow God’s life to flow through you and fill the huge void you have that was created by your former adversary. By courageously choosing the path of humble and loving nonresistance, we have added one more stone to the construction of God’s Kingdom.