Sermon on the Mount: Telling the Devil to Double Up

Ye have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee, turn not thou away. (Matthew 5:38-42)

Christ elevates expectations for His followers — we no longer follow the law of primitive man, but the higher law of turning the other cheek. “Condescending to human perversity, the law permitted retaliation so that men would not harm each other, out of fear of suffering the same themselves,” the Blessed Theophylact wrote in his Explanation of the Holy Gospel of Matthew. This applies not only for physical blows, both for any other kinds of injustice served us. “Do not think that the Lord is speaking only of a blow on the cheek, but of any and every other kind of affliction,” the Theophylact continues.

Instead, we are to answer with patient endurance. And we cannot have this without the Lord’s grace. In his writings on monasticism, John Cassian wrote that obedience to Christ’s law vis-à-vis the Mosaic law required grace. Grace, then, was the perfecting the law, and would give us the fortitude to withstand even double the attacks on our person. “The law forbids not retaliation for wrongs and vengeance for injuries, saying `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ Grace would have our patience proved by the injuries and blows offered to us being redoubled, and bids us be ready to endure twice as much damage; saying: ‘If a man strike thee on one cheek, offer him the other also; and to him who will contend with thee at the law and take away thy coat, give him thy cloak also.’ The one decrees that we should hate our enemies, the other that we should love them so that it holds that even for them we ought always to pray to God.” The grace of God, then, gives us the inner strength to deal with adversity, even to endure it joyfully, and we are to tap into the grace of God through prayer.

Prayer strengthens us, and so does inner stillness, which adds depth to the sense of peace that should pervade our being when confronted with aggression. Christ “desires entirely to remove all incitement to anger from the deepest recesses of the soul,” Cassian continues. “If your external right cheek has received a blow from the striker, the inner man also humbly consenting may offer its right cheek to be smitten, sympathizing with the suffering of the outward man, and in a way submitting and subjecting its own body to wrong from the striker, that the inner man may not even silently be disturbed in itself at the blows of the outward man. You see then that they are very far from evangelical perfection, which teaches that patience must be maintained, not in words but in inward tranquillity of heart, and which bids us preserve it whatever evil happens, that we may not only keep ourselves always from disturbing anger, but also by submitting to their injuries compel those, who are disturbed by their own fault, to become calm, when they have had their fill of blows; and so overcome their rage by our gentleness. And so also we shall fulfil these words of the Apostle: ‘Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.’

Lastly, we need to know with whom we are really fighting. The ancient text does not read “That ye resist not evil,” but “That ye resist not the evil one.” So it not just an arbitrary act of unkindness, but a planned action by the devil itself. “He signifies again, that it is not our brother who hath done these deeds, but the evil one,” writes St. John Chrysostom. Thus, the devil wins when we retaliate against our brother, but loses when we tell the devil to double up on his blows.

About Pete Mladineo

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