I saw a piece of “old news” from March 2014 reported this week. The news article was about an eighteen year old who sued her parents for “her private-school tuition, her college tuition and her living expenses.” I don’t know why the incident was recycled recently, but it is certainly one of those news items that attracts attention.
The young lady had run afoul of her parents by ignoring completely their household rules. The parents demanded that she observe a curfew or move out. She chose to move out, and sue her parents for a list of financial demands. The court threw out some of her demands, but awarded her $56,000 for college tuition.
If I had to take a guess about why this event reappeared in the news I would say that it’s because of the indignant reaction the story would provoke from most of its readers. Maybe it was a slow news week. At the very least, the story is emblematic of the degree of pettiness which has become accepted as normal in our society. Before I fall into petty recriminations about the state of our society perhaps I should point out that our society’s failings are not unique.
The society in which Jesus lived was very prone to pettiness and selfishness. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus said, “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 to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.” (Matthew 5:38-42)
The biblical injunction “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Leviticus 24:20), was intended to limit the escalation of revenge. It was not (as some assume today), permission to exact revenge. Rather, it put limits on how far revenge could go: if you lost an eye you could exact no more than an eye from your attacker, or if you lost a tooth you could exact no more than a tooth from your attacker. It was intended to prevent people from escalating a dispute to the point that loss of life occurred.
Of course, trying to keep revenge within acceptable limits never works. On a daily basis small acts of negligence on local streets and highways escalate into criminal acts of road rage. Jesus’ teaching about revenge and the experience of injustice can be seen as a very virtuous attempt to defuse conflict. From this point of view, Jesus’ teaching can be said to command that we avoid all revenge and all attempts to redress injustice rather than try to limit conflict and recrimination to an acceptable minimum.
Immediately, however, a problem arises. Are we to avoid all efforts to remedy injustice? Are we to give up any attempt to address the pettiness of people around us? Are we to make ourselves (and others), the willing victims of those who are prone to be violent, greedy and unjust? Does this nullify the Church’s teaching about human dignity and social justice? Perhaps there is another meaning to Jesus’ words.
The biblical injunction to limit revenge that Jesus quoted was a general principle, not limited only to the cases it cited. (Leviticus 24:17-22) As this was general law for ancient Israel, perhaps we should understand Jesus’ teaching on this matter as something to be generalized. I suggest that Jesus’ teaching on the matter of revenge should be generalized to address all of human experience.
The universe in which we live is finite, and as a result, it is woefully imperfect. The finitude and imperfection of the universe are seen not only in the conflicts that arise between human persons, but also in the vagaries of human life. Our human nature is prone to physical and moral weakness. We are often the subjects of injury and disease. We suffer loss and tragedy. Eventually, each one of us will face the end of life itself.
There are many possible responses to the imperfections of the universe. Some people fall into resentment over the suffering and loss they experience. Some people become chronically angry about injustice. Some people give into despair. Some people question the existence or goodness or trustworthiness of God. Most, if not all, of human nature’s responses to suffering and injustice lead ineluctably to self-destructiveness.
Jesus’ generalized teaching about loss and injustice offers a possible response that avoids self-destructiveness; it can be applied as an effective remedy to all experiences of evil. He said that his disciples should treat all people and all events with the same impartiality that God shows to the entire universe. God “makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) In exactly the same way, Jesus’ disciples are to forgive the world for its imperfections, and treat all people with unbiased (divine), compassion.
Forgiveness and compassion are, by their very nature, extremely difficult to offer and maintain. The kinds of people and experiences that require forgiveness and compassion are precisely the kinds of people and experiences which we are loathe to forgive. Nonetheless, Jesus makes this a general commandment for his disciples. We are to forgive universally, habitually and without reservation. While this is challenging teaching, failure to follow it exacts the highest possible price.
The world and everything in it (including our human nature), is a mixture of light and dark, good and evil, justice and injustice. We can choose to live in the world’s imperfection by becoming discouraged, resentful and vengeful, or we can follow Jesus’ teachings. The choice to follow Jesus’ teaching about universal, habitual forgiveness not only frees us from the burdens of imperfection, it is an encounter with God. When we imitate God’s forbearance with creation we put ourselves as near to God’s presence as is possible to attain in this world.
Each one of us necessarily carries the burdens of sorrow, loss, injustice and human weakness. However, it is not necessary for us to be crushed by those burdens. The only lasting remedy for the world’s imperfections is God’s perfection, and we can participate in Divine perfection when we forgive as God forgives. When looked at from the perspective of anger, jealousy, resentment, vengefulness, despair and the like, the world is darkness. When looked at from the perspective of generalized forgiveness, the world is filled with light. The children of God walk in light.