Faith Matters

Morality and beyond

Fr Martin Henry
Martin Henry

MUCH of the ethical teaching of Jesus is so extreme as to seem to border on the impossible.

It appears frequently to go beyond what the Jewish law itself demanded, as in the case of `an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth'. And it's believed that even this law represented a significant moral advance on what was there before, when people might have been permitted to take two eyes for one eye, or several teeth for one tooth.

But Jesus goes beyond even this more humane, or at least less vindictive, way of dealing with conflict, and teaches that, if you have been wronged, even grievously wronged, you should seek to exact no retribution whatsoever.

His teaching in this regard: "If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well," has given us the proverbial expression about `turning the other cheek'. And we can get some sense of how revolutionary this teaching was when we realise that being hit on the right cheek, which is specifically mentioned in Matthew's Gospel, was seemingly worse than being hit on the left cheek. To slap people with an open hand would be to hit them on the left cheek. But to be hit on the right cheek implies being hit with the back, not the palm, of someone's hand, and that apparently, in the world Jesus lived in, was not only an injury, but it represented also a very deliberate insult and expression of total contempt on the part of the aggressor.

Yet even to this most serious form of aggression, Jesus tells his followers to offer no resistance, let alone retaliation. He even raises the stakes in terms of what injury and insult and disadvantage his followers are supposed to endure from those who harass them: "If a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him," a saying that has also given us another proverbial expression, about `going the extra (or second) mile'.

Now, while these kinds of teachings have often been held up as the very essence of Christian moral teaching, it is maybe worth asking if they are really about morality at all. For they do seem so outlandish that one wonders sometimes whether they can really have been meant to be taken seriously or literally. Certainly, probably few people have witnessed anyone - ourselves or others - behaving in the precise way that Jesus recommends. To take just the specific example of turning the other cheek: How often have we seen people refuse to defend themselves willingly in a personal fight?

Could it be that Jesus' `ethical' teaching is not basically about morality at all, or at least not about morality in the first instance? This is not to say that Jesus' teaching doesn't have a deep significance. But maybe its deepest significance lies beyond the moral sphere, while of course having to do with morality, with good and evil, and with the difference between them. It has been suggested that what Jesus is really driving at in the kind of teaching highlighted is the idea "that evil can be made absurd through excess" (Joseph Brodsky), or through exaggeration. It's as though you were to say to someone who had wronged you: "Why did you only wrong me a little? Could you not have tried harder and wronged me a lot more?" It's a question, in other words, of ridiculing evil, and thus of being able to rise above it and in this way remain finally undefeated by it.

The "extreme" teaching of Jesus may, thus, "have in fact very little to do...with the principles of not responding in kind and returning good for evil," (Brodsky), but it may have everything to do with trying to get us to see that only the good is real, and that evil eventually collapses because of its own inherent emptiness and absurdity and untruthfulness, for all the untold damage it can clearly do to human beings before it collapses and is exposed as bogus or fake.

But we can surely only accept this, if we also believe in the fundamental reality of good and the power of good to remain undefeated by evil. Could this be one of the things meant by believing in God?

:: Martin Henry is a former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth and is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.

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