The Duel Stone

Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23;  Matthew 5:38-48


At Cawston Heath on the Norwich to Holt Road, there stands a stone urn called the duel stone. It marks the position of the last duel fought in Norfolk, in 1698, between Oliver Le Neve, a lawyer and Sir Henry Hobart, of Blickling Hall and formerly MP for King’s Lynn. Hobart was argumentative, dictatorial and headstrong and always falling out with his neighbours. Le Neve was a more easy-going and popular man. Hobart believed Le Neve had dishonoured him by spreading false rumours of cowardly behaviour at the Battle of the Boyne which had prevented him from being elected to parliament.  Hobart issued a formal challenge to Le Neve to a duel to defend his honour. Early in the morning the pair met at Cawston Heath. Hobart, a renowned swordsman, wounded his opponent in the arm but got his sword caught in the sleeve. Le Neve, in riposte, thrust his sword into Hobart’s belly. He was carried back to Blickling where he died the next day. Le Neve fled into exile in Holland.

Hobart’s desire to avenge himself cost him his life, an extreme example of the dangers of seeking vengeance. Neither he nor his opponent followed the instruction of Jesus to turn the other cheek.

At the time of Jesus, to be struck on the right cheek was an insult, for it was a back-handed slap (assuming your assailant was right-handed). If he was left-handed it was additionally insulting, as this was the hand used for the toilet. To offer the other cheek rather than fight back would hopefully have drawn conflict to a premature close.

The law of Moses ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, was not intended to encourage retribution. It was the means by which vengeance could be contained and not create a feud.  One man who knew all about feuds was the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. During the time he served with the Greek Resistance in Crete during the Second World War, he shot and killed a Cretan colleague while cleaning his gun. The man’s brother refused to hear his apology, and when Paddy returned to the island in 1950 the man’s nephew was waiting to shoot him in revenge. Only in 1975 did the nephew forgive him and call an end to the blood-feud by inviting Paddy to his daughter’s baptism. It ended when he decided, over  30 years after the event.

Some people seem to thrive on conflict, while others abhor it, and will do anything to avoid it. Turning the other cheek is not an act of weakness, but of strength, rising above the conflict, taking the heat out of it. It is to emulate Christ, who at the end did not seek to save himself but took the lashes, the insults and the cross without retort; it is to be like him who ‘was oppressed, and afflicted, yet opened not his mouth.’

To achieve this Christ-like perfection we have to set our hearts on the solution and take our minds off the problem. Sometimes people seem to want to hold on to old resentment. When people say they cannot forgive, I wonder if they want to forgive. You can never reach the costly point of forgiveness unless you desire with all your heart to reach that point where it is possible.

Here in the gospel we again have practical advice from Jesus, to do all we can to avoid conflict.  Although Jesus declares that ‘it was said you must hate your enemy’, there is no reference in scripture to this. However there was a command in the Qumran community to hate all the sons of darkness. Here we can understand hatred as cutting yourself off from a person or group while love means attaching yourself to them.   To love God with all one’s heart means attaching ourselves to him with all devotion; to love our neighbour is to be attached to them and to acknowledge a duty of care.

To love God, is to emulate him. Be holy, he says as he is holy, and all goodness. Copy him, make his ways your ways.

Much of what Jesus says here appears crazy by the world’s standards. But the world’s ways are not God’s ways. The world’s wisdom is foolishness compared with God’s. The unrestrained pursuit of conflict and the harbouring of old hatreds are at the root of many of the world’s problems. But we must not just wag our fingers critically at the others who make the world a worse place, for the words of Jesus are addressed first to us as his followers. We must get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger in ourselves.   

Getting even will not bring us the lasting satisfaction that comes from desiring to love those who do us harm.