A Hellenistic Complement To The Sermon On The Mount

A Hellenistic Complement To The Sermon On The Mount August 12, 2011

Maximus of Tyre, in his dissertation on the question “Whether injuries are to be returned?” can be seen as providing a Hellenistic complement to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, of course, gives an answer to the question which transcends the one of Maximus. Nonetheless, Maximus can be shown as providing the philosophical foundation for the Christian rejection of vengeance.  Maximus tells us that one who returns injury commits an offense and can no longer be seen as innocent and pure. Jesus goes further and tells us we must do good to those who would injure us, to love them even if they would not love us back (cf. Matt. 5:44-8). It is amazing that a non-Christian philosopher (from the second century of the common era) is able to appreciate the truth behind the Sermon of the Mount and proclaim it while many who claim Christ as their own do not.

The foundation for Maximus lies in the fact that to injure someone is to do evil. If one is good, they would not return such an evil with a similar evil, for he would then become as unjust as the one who abused them:

In short, if to do an injury is base, it is also base to return an injury. For he who does an injury is not more depraved, because he begins it, but he is by whom it is returned is equally unworthy. And if he does and injury acts basely, he who compensates evil with evil acts no less basely, though he may perform the part of an avenger. For as he who returns a benefit to him by whom he had been previously benefited, acts no less well, though he was previously benefitted; so he who returns an injury acts no less ill, though he was previously injured.[1]

One should not even wish to return injury to anyone, for that alone shows one is guilty of an evil. Just as Jesus said, “But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”  (Matt. 5:28 RSV), so Maximus points out that the law judges and condemns those who intend to commit some crime. “For the law punishes as an adulterer, not only him who commits, but him who wishes to commit adultery; and as a housebreaker, him who attempts the deed, though he should be discovered before its perpetration; and as a traitor, him who intends to betray, though he should not execute intention.”[2]

Maximus understood that goodness must not be corrupted. As long as one remains righteous and follows the good, that good will make sure they will not suffer any injury in the ultimate sense. “For the good man neither injures, nor is injured. He does not injure, indeed, through his will; he is not injured through his virtue.”[3] What, then, should the just person do? Surely they will suffer from the insults and evil-will of others. Should they not respond? Yes, they can respond by laughing at the situation, by laughing at the absurdity which suggests merely temporal things are worthy of ultimate consideration. If one is pushed into a corner and there is no exit from temporal injury, one must think of the eternal glory one possesses by remaining in the good:

Thus Socrates derided the Athenians, as making puerile decrees, and ordering a mortal man to be put to death. And in like manner every other good and just man will sincerely laugh when he sees himself earnestly attacked by the unjust, who think that they can accomplish something, and yet effect nothing. But if he should experience their contempt, he will exclaim, in the language of Achilles:

Jove honorus me, and favours my designs.

If they should deprive him of his possessions, he will endure the loss as if playthings and dice were taken from him: and he will die as if her were deprived of life by a fever or the stone, without any indignation against his murderers. [4]

One cannot but wonder if Maximus had seen Christians put to death; he would have recognized the legitimacy of his words. Early Christians did not fight back or seek to injure their persecutors; they rather sought to do them good. Like Jesus, they forgave the ones who sought their death. Many playfully ridiculed the harm the persecutors tried to do, offering more of themselves to their persecutors if they found themselves miraculously uninjured. They looked to the good and followed it, with a heart for the conversion of their persecutors, a heart which often led to the conversion they so desired. Doing good and showing love to one who would do you wrong might not change their hearts, but, on the other hand, it might. Doing evil, seeking to harm someone as a response to their wicked desire, only brings about a cycle of violence which knows no end. Gandhi said an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind; Maximus of Tyre would agree:

What end then will there be of evil? For if he who is injured returns the injury, evil will always pass and lead from one to another, and injury will receive injury. For by the same right by which you permit him who is injured to return the injury, vengeance returns again from the same to the same; for the just is equal in both. Do you also see by Jupiter what you do in making justice consist from injuries? How far too will this evil extend itself, and where will it stop? Do you not see that you excite an ever-flowing fountain of depravity; and that you are introducing a law which is the source of evil to all the earth? For this indeed was the leader of evils formerly to mankind. Through this, barbaric Grecian fleets sailed into each others’ lands, which they plundered and laid waste, making something past the pretext of the present injury. The Phoenicians force from Argos a royal maid; the Grecian from Colchis a barbaric virgin; and again the Phrygians from Peloponnesus a Laconic woman. You see a succession of evils, pretexts of wars, and a multiplication of injuries. Indeed nothing else destroyed Greece itself than an opinion of injury pervading to its neighbouring nations, together with restless rage, immortal anger, the love of vengeance, and the ignorance of justice.[5]

Does not Jesus tell us that anger leads to destruction? And does he not say justice lie outside of the courts, but with making friends with those who would sue us? “Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison” (Matt 5:25 RSV). Jesus tells us Christians to remain good by the higher path of love. “But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you” (Matt 5:39-42). What is so difficult for many to understand – why Jesus would tell us to do good to those who seek us harm – is given a kind of understanding when we see what happens if we follow the response concupiscence suggests. Maximus looks at and reminds us the end result: we fall from our purity and become guilty of the same evils which we find reprehensible. If we can understand this, we can then start to understand Jesus’ transcendent response. If following through with an act of vengeance does injury to ourselves and helps evil thrive in the world, then doing good helps raise us closer to God; and being closer to God, being filled with more grace, we are capable of halting, if not eliminating, the evil which we encounter on a daily basis.

[1] Maximus Tyrius, The Dissertations of Maximus Tyrius. Trans. Thomas Taylor (Frome, Somerset: The Prometheus Trust, 1994), 42.

[2] Ibid., 41.

[3] Ibid., 41-2.

[4] Ibid., 44-5.

[5] Ibid., 42-3.

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