2 Corinthians 6:1-10; Matthew 5:38-42
Centuries ago, the Vikings sailed their warships down from the north, onto the coasts and into the rivers of Europe. Although they didn’t discriminate much, one of their favorite targets was the Church. They quickly learned that her monasteries and buildings not only held great riches but were the homes of religious men and women who offered virtually no resistance at all.
Eventually the Vikings tired of their pilgrimages south to plunder and decided to settle in Europe. The French bought them off by giving them a large tract of land known still as Normandy, named after the Norsemen. The first Normans were pagans and scoffed at the religious ways of the Europeans but over time their children and their children’s children, raised in those ways, became not only fierce warriors but also devout Catholics. In fact, at least one historian has referred to the Norman armies as the “Pope’s marines.”1 Not only that, but Normandy became a place of great monastic reform within the Church.
It’s paradoxical but also one of the great strategies for ultimate victory in battle. It is ancient, known even to Ovid, the Roman poet of Christ’s time who wrote, “Yield to him who opposes you; by yielding you conquer.”
That is what Christ commands in today’s gospel. Conquer by yielding. Measure his words: offer no resistance to one who is evil. He does not advocate losing, giving in, or even passive resistance. He advocates no resistance at all. Offer the other cheek; give your cloak and your tunic; go two miles when asked for one; give when asked. An adversary is powerless in the face of this. What difference does it make how hard a river wave strikes a reed if the reed bends at a mere ripple? One slender reed that bends renders the entire power of the river useless.
There is pain in the bending. Jesus doesn’t say that yielding is easy or pain-free. In the first reading, St. Paul recounts the many ways it hurt him: afflictions, hardships, constraints, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, vigils, fasts (2 Corinthians 6:4-5). Not a path for the faint of heart. Yet consider the alternative; when fighting a vastly superior force, is resistance easier and a guarantee of victory? Indeed, just as we all know how trees that cannot bend in the wind will break, we’ve all felt the pain and futility of trying to conquer the worst enemy of all: our own will. Think how often our own resistance has been so easily overcome.
Now consider what it means to yield to the superior forces of temptation and evil around us. It doesn’t mean to give in, for that would be losing. No, to yield is to have the humility to acknowledge that these forces are more powerful than I, so I must rely on the greatest power, the Holy Spirit. St. Paul also lists the benefits of that: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, unfeigned love, truthful speech (2 Corinthians 6:6-7). These are the gentle, God-given strengths available to us; although they take time to cultivate and develop, even the largest boulder is smoothed and worn down over time by a gentle stream.
It took a long time – generations – but the Church in Europe triumphed even over the seemingly invincible Vikings. I say “seemingly” for we who hear the words of Christ in the gospel know that in reality the Vikings never had a chance. All they had were swords, brute strength, and a fierce warrior spirit; what is that against the gentle, persistent, indomitable power of God? Through the ministers of the Church, the Spirit of God flowed over that mighty Norman rock and carved it into a force that would defend and promote the faith they once mocked for yielding so easily.
The key to victory then and now is patient endurance. We may know it as the virtue of ‘long-suffering,’ and for this virtue we must constantly pray. Long-suffering requires tremendous strength but it is the strength born of hope, hope in that one great victory promised by Christ who, envisioning his own redemptive passion, death, and resurrection said through the evangelist John, In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world (John 16:33).
1 Crocker III, H.W. (2000). Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church. New York: Three Rivers Press, p. 160.