Gospel Reflection for Feb. 23, 2020

As we continue to read through the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus offering deeper insight into the fuller understanding of the Mosaic Law. This expansion and reiteration of the Law is seen again clearly this week as Jesus tells us that it is not enough to just observe the letter of law, but that our interior disposition both toward the Law and toward the people in our lives is paramount.

Jesus calls his disciples to go beyond observing the Law and to exercise charity in their interactions with authority or power. This charity is not, however, a sign of either weakness or passivity. This exercise of charity is not intended to placate or submit to the will of the stronger, who is perhaps evil in his or her use of power. The point of charity is to serve as instruction to the other to recognize their abuse or misuse of their power, influence or control.

It is also instructive to the disciples about the nature of true freedom. An exercise of freedom itself can be a teaching moment. We might think of that anonymous young man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square (Beijing, 1989) whose act of passive defiance shook the Communist regime to its core.

The author Viktor Frankl, reflecting on his life spent in concentration camps in the 1940s writes in his work “Man’s Search for Meaning:” “The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

“And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

“Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seem more to us than the mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him - mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”

This changes entirely the dialogue between the oppressed and the oppressor, the aggressor and the victim, the strong and the weak. Discipleship is not about weakness, it is about the strength of freedom in Christ, won at the price of his Death and Resurrection.

“Turning the other cheek” might sound weak, but it is more a statement of defiance than of weakness. To turn the other cheek is intended to force the person who strikes you to raise their other hand to strike you again. In effect this weakens the aggressor, and shows your exercise of freedom even in the face of oppression.

Each day we see examples of men and women of every age, race and nation who have the radical courage to turn the other cheek as they face oppression for their faith, bringing their persecutors to confront their own cowardice and inhumanity.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.