Today’s gospel (Mt 5.38-48) is counter-intuitive, that is to say, it goes against our instincts. It flies in the face of what we would normally consider to be common sense. Offer no resistance to the wicked man, says Jesus. Turn the other cheek. Give more than you are due to give. And then – the most difficult of all perhaps – love your enemy. When Jesus speaks to us like this the words are a shock. Is this what a wise parent would advise their children to do? Would you not be more likely to say, Stand up for yourself. Get even with anyone who hurts you. Give no more than you have to. Don’t get soft-hearted towards your enemy. This is the way of the world, and this is the way that we would normally regard as sensible.
We have to live our lives in a way that is sensible. We all know that. But there is a problem here. If we always live that way, and everybody does this, then the world will never make any progress. We will be locked in cycles of endless repetition, in which caution is the keyword. A passage like ours today reminds us that sometimes we have to do the unexpected thing.
About 25 years ago a resident of the presbytery at St Mary of the Angels opened the door of his room to find a burglar rifling through his drawers. Thinking quickly, he double-locked the door and went and fetched the parish priest, Fr Michael Hollings. When they opened the door they found the burglar crouched on the window-sill, with a three-story drop beneath him. He threatened to jump. He had been in and out of prison, he said, and his mother had told him that if he went back to prison once more then it might kill her. He couldn’t face it. So should the priest simply have let him go? Forgiven him and sent him on his way? Fr Michael chose to side-step the emotion blackmail (‘It would kill my mother if I went back to prison’). Instead he responded to the burglar with a question.
‘What are you doing to your mother?’ asked Fr Michael. It was a shrewd question. It shifted the responsibility back on to the burglar. Then, having challenged him in this way, Fr Michael talked him down from the window-sill and took him down to the kitchen for a cup of tea and a stiff talking-to. Then he let the man go without calling the police. Was it wise? Was it right? Perhaps the man went straight back to a life of crime. But he had been given a chance, he had been challenged to live a responsible life.
Common sense is very important. We could not live without it. But here’s the rub: if we always live our life by common sense and the rule book, then we have no vision for the world. We have no hope that the world could be other than the way it is. We don’t even believe that we ourselves could be other than we are. Caution can sometimes be another form of pessimism. By contrast Jesus calls us to make room in our lives for the gesture of faith. To the world it might seem naïve, and let’s be honest, Christians can sometimes be naïve. But what sort of world would you rather live in? A world where people never took any risk at all? Or a world where ideals of love, forgiveness, generosity, sometimes inspired men and women to take the leap of faith? If the latter, then you have a world which is not only true to God but also a world that is truly human.