20Feb Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme

Our instinct of self-preservation makes us naturally resent and resist those who do us wrong. But unresolved hatred can come between us and our loving God, who wants us to be more forgiving, like him. St Paul’s great collective image of the church as a living temple, into which each of us is built, can help us to appreciate the value of others who also belong to that great sanctuary.

Readings

Lev 19:1-2, 17-18. God calls each believer to love his neighbour as himself. They were to be tolerant and not vengeful towards each other.

1 Cor 3:16-23. The Church, the body of believers, is the temple of God. “All things are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.”

Mt 5:38-48. All the teaching about love and mercy in the Sermon on the Mount is summed up in this ideal: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

{For the full text of today’s readings, scroll to the end of this file}.

Bidding Prayers

– for the grace to overcome our resentments, and have compassion towards all, in imitation of God.

– that we may see beyond the temptation to seek revenge on those who have hurt us, and recognize their hurts and weakness too.

– for the grace, somehow, by the help of God, to really love our enemies.

– that at some deep level we may seek to be perfect, loving people as God loves them, unconditionally.

Eye For An Eye (Liam Swords)

The old cowboy films of my boyhood Sundays had a scene that always intrigued me. In the bar-room shoot-out, the crook, beaten to the draw, tottered to the floor, riddled with bullets. As the gunman turned away, the dying crook weakly raised his gun and fired a last shot into the gunman’s back. Then he slumped back and died, almost contentedly, a wisp of smoke spiralling from his gun and a flicker of a smile on his face. Sweet revenge!

I accepted all this then as part of the Western fantasy-world. I know better now. Life is full of people with chips on their shoulders, real or imaginary, all waiting for a chance to get their own back. They carry their scars through life, refusing to let them heal until they have settled accounts. Feuds, vendettas and – grudges are nurtured in parishes, in streets and even in families.

Some are even passed down from one generation to the next. A colossal amount of human energy and ingenuity is expended on settling old scores and exacting vengeance. The lex talionis – “an eye for eye and tooth for tooth” – is alive and well and thriving in every human environment, but nowhere more so than in the in dustrial world. Management singles out troublemakers for redundancy. Blacklists are kept. Workers know where and when to call a lightening strike and who in management is to be sacri ficed. Even in the corridors of power, in the velvet setting of plush boardrooms, the knives are long and sharp and are slipped between pin-striped shoulder-blades almost with a smile.

Honour is always at stake when the God of vengeance is invoked. “Getting one’s own back” is raised to the level of a virtue in our world. The injured party could never hold its head up again if the injury is not repaid. Loved ones too are invoked. We owe it to our wives and children. “Getting even” becomes an obsession. “I’ll fix him if it is the last thing I do.” Shades of the prostrate crook and his smoking six-shooter! The world has nothing but contempt for the one who “turns the other cheek.” He is a weakling. “He took it lying down.” It goads us on to vengeance. “Don’t let them get away with it.”

The Bible tells us otherwise. The Lord said to Moses: “You must not exact vengeance, nor must you bear a grudge against the children of your people.” What is refreshing about today’s gospel is that it recognises us as we are, full of pettiness, exacting hurt for hurt, trading blow for blow. We all have enemies who persecute us. Letting them get away with it is not easy. Loving them is a call to perfection. “You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Not Vengeful (John Walsh)

In the teaching of the catechism, about a generation ago, there was a much-used image of God symbolised by an ever-watchful eye, with a warning finger in front of it, and written underneath, the words, “God sees you.” It may well have been an attempt to express visually the feelings of job in the Old Testament, where he became obsessed and frightened by the thought that God was scrutinising his every action. “Will you never take your eyes off me, long enough for me to swallow my spittle?,” he cried (Job 7:19). Or it could have been an illustration of a saying in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, “Their ways are always under his eye, they cannot be hidden from his sight” (17:15).

But such a concept of God, instead of drawing souls to him, can also have disastrous results, as for example in the person of the French writer and philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He stated in his autobiography that, in the middle of an innocent boyhood prank, he suddenly realised that, in his own words, “God sees me.” And this so frightened him that, by deliberate choice, he set God aside, and became a bitter atheist for the rest of his life. In his writings, he painted a picture of responsible but lonely human beings adrift in a meaningless world, with a terrifying freedom to choose, that brought with it anguish or enduring anxiety. But God, from whom we come and to whom we go, instead of fixing a cold and calculating eye on us, bestows life and joy and, if we but have faith in him, a sense of being cared for – cared for, not because of what we do, or indeed the choices we make, but for our own sakes. God, we might say, even turn a blind eye on our faults, as shown by the Parable of the Prodigal Son; he is indiscriminating in his compassion; he is a Father who is prodigal in his forgiveness.

Never should we see God as a threat to our lives. Rather does he want us to live, to grow, to come to maturity and fulfilment. To err is human; to forgive divine, and this readiness to forgive is the unique attribute of our God. “Father forgive them,” Jesus prayed for his executioners, “because they know not what they do.” As the gospel points out, God treats all alike. He causes the sun to rise on the bad people as well as the good, his rain – a blessing in parched Israel – to fall on honest and dishonest alike.

And in our attitudes too, Christ tells us, there must be no spite, no hatred, no vindictiveness towards others. “Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he tells us. “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy,” the first reading says. Strange as it may seem, the principle of “an eye for an eye” was not a barbaric practice, but rather a call to the people of the Old Testament to exercise restraint towards those from whom they differed. It became known as the Law of Recompense or Retaliation (Lex talionis). But if we read the story of the creation in the book of Genesis, we see how quickly the disorders in society, caused by sin, spread after the fall of our first parents, recounted in chapter three. Chapter four describes for us the first murder; and the spirit of hatred and feuding between families and clans that spread amongst mankind is exemplified by the reference to Lamech saying in the same chapter: “I killed a man for wounding me, a boy for striking me. Sevenfold vengeance is taken for Cain,but seventy-seven-fold for Lamech.”

The pursuit of such vendettas – which by the way we have witnessed in our own times also in the wiping out of whole villages, even cities, by way of retaliation – brings about the virtual collapse of society. We have seen it in our own country, in the sectarian violence promoted in the name of religion, in the collapse of the fabric of community life within certain areas of our cities, with the resulting unhappiness and longing to get away from it all on the part of many. It is striking how quickly even the first Christian communities became divided and partisan, some taking Paul’s side, others that of Apollos, and so on, as described in the second reading from the Letter to the Corinthians. But tensions, it can be said also, seem to give more purpose to a community. They oblige people to spend more time in prayer, in dialogue, in working at the restoration of unity. “As the Lord has forgiven you,” St Paul warns, “so you also must forgive. Put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col 3:12-18).

Encompassing Compassion (John Macken)

(1) Others had said: “do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.” That is perhaps the basic law of manners and politeness. Jesus, characteristically, goes beyond this: Do to others.. The Christian ethic is positive. It goes beyond “Thou shalt not..” to “Do…” It is activist. There is the story of the man who appeared at the gate of heaven asking to be let in. St Peter asked him why he thought he should be let in. The man answered: “my hands are clean.” “Yes,” answered Peter, “but they are empty!’

(2) The Christian ethic always asks for more. Many people are puzzled and confused because Christian moral guides are sometimes slow to lay down a clear minimum which people must achieve to be justified. But Jesus asks for more. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” What is so special about that? Jesus asks for extra. We told his disciples: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Yet with those who tried and failed he was full of sympathy and compassion. He will never say “enough,” but he will not reject anyone who has failed and comes back to him.

(3) Some people see life in terms of dog eating dog. David had his chance to kill his enemy before his enemy killed him, as Saul fully intended to do. But he held back and he would not take Saul’s life. The temptation to violence is an easy one. The world is full of wars and violent confrontations. We yield too readily to our instincts of aggression, whether it is the great aggression where nation confronts nation in a balance of terror, or violent confrontations between groups of citizens, or violence in the home. Education in peaceful means of solving interpersonal and intercommunal difficulties is one of the greatest needs of our age. The way is open to Christians to start to learn more about non-violent means of solving conflicts and becomes peacemakers.

(4) Compassion is the characteristic of God – even of the “Old Testament God” whom many commentators, following some early Christian heretics, like to portray as harsh and cruel. Our psalm, which comes from the Old Testament emphasises that God is not the seeker of vengeance that many people imagine him to be. He is not waiting and anxious to punish each and every fault, but he is concerned only to remove our sins and to make us one with him.

(5) God’s love and goodness, his desire not to reject or to lose us, is shown most powerfully in what he has done for us in his Son Jesus Christ. He has made us into a new creation. He wishes to join us with him for an eternity of fulfilment and happiness. God’s compassion for sinful and unhappy humanity is the model of our compassion. St Matthew had said: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Ch. 5:48.) St John said: “God is love” (1 John 4:7.) St Luke’s report of Jesus’ words is: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.”

Christian response to violence (Andrew McGrady)

One might examine the dominant issue of the Christian response to violence. In many parts of the world Christians are involved in conflict situations with other Christians,, or with others who worship God – Central America, Northern Ireland, Southern Africa and Beirut are obvious instances. In our homes, the mass media daily present a diet of violence as an essential part of many entertainment programmes. Violence is presented as a socially acceptable, valid, problem solving approach by the media. It is legitimate for the preacher to reflect upon why we should find watching violent acts entertaining? No society or individual is free from the blight of violence, be it terrorism, war, vandalism, or the pollution of media violence portrayed as entertainment.

Jesus himself preached during the Roman occupation of his country. Notice the reference in the Gospel to the hated tax-collectors who gathered the taxes for the occupying Romans, and the reference to the right of the Roman soldier to ask any person he met to carry his pack one mile for him. Existing Jewish law allowed an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Violence was to be met with a proportionate retaliation. It often seems today that the position in Jewish law is that followed by international politics; nuclear weapons are stock-piled on a proportionate basis; so-called peace rests upon the threat of immediate retaliation; terrorists commit new atrocities to avenge inflicted atrocities; super-powers retaliate against smaller countries claiming that their actions of force will put an end to terror. In presenting the new law of the Kingdom of God Jesus rejected all of this. Violence is not to be responded to with violence. His words in the Gospel may seem to imply a passive acceptance of violence and oppression. This is not the case. Christians do not pretend that violence does not exist within society, they oppose violence passionately, with a willingness to give up even their own lives if necessary, but they do not meet violence with violence. Violence and hate are to be opposed with love and forgiveness; strength with apparent weakness. The Christian is one who strives for reconciliation. People in our own times, such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King, have shown the power of Jesus’ conviction in this regard.

A homily based on the Second Reading could focus on the unique dignity of the baptised Christian and the definition of Christian ministry as service. Paul writes to a divided church at Corinth, a church pre-occupied not with the Gospel but with arguments over who should be regarded as the greatest among the teachers of the Gospel message. Paul responds to the crisis by appealing to the dignity of the faithful as temples of the Spirit of God. In a marvellous sentence towards the end of the text he states, “Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life and death, the present and the future, all are your servants, but you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.”

Christians have great dignity as sisters and brothers of Christ, daughters and sons of God. Those who minister to the Christian community are to serve believers aware of their dignity.

The Toughest Test (Jack McArdle)

Today’s gospel has Jesus teaching about what is generally accepted as being the hallmark of the Christian, i.e. forgiveness and love. In one way it is nice, in a gentle or sweet way while, in another, it is among the toughest teachings in the whole gospel.

During the “troubles” in Ireland in the 1970’s, Gordon Wilson captured the hearts of the nation when his daughter, Marie, was killed in a horrific terrorist explosion in Enniskillen. It was “Poppy Day,” an annual day when the British remembered those killed in the two World Wars. There was a monument in Enniskillen and Gordon and his daughter Marie were there with thousands of others for a service of commemoration. Suddenly a bomb went off right in the middle of the crowd, and the results were devastating, and the carnage was horrific. Marie took the full force of the blast, and for some time Gordon and herself were beneath the pile of rubble and bodies, while he spoke to her, and she herself actually uttered several words. She died, however, as they clung to each other. Right from the moment that Gordon Wilson was rescued from the rubble, he spoke of forgiveness for the people who had planted the bomb, and he asked for prayers for them. In his eyes, they were the ones to be pitied. He figured prominently in the Irish and English media. He crossed the divide to speak to those “on the other side” of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and he offered his services as a mediator in any way that would help to bring reconciliation and peace. Because of his work for peace, and because of the glowing example of his powerful Christian witness, the Irish Government nominated him to be a member of the Senate. He worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation, right up to his death a few years ago.

The first thing I can say about today’s gospel is that its teaching goes directly against everything that Jesus was taught as a child. With the Jews it was “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Your enemy was just that and no more, and was always to be treated as your enemy. Such a person could expect nothing else but your hatred and opprobrium for the rest of his life. Their system of justice was arbitrary and ruthless, as we witness in gospel stories where the woman was being stoned to death, or when Jesus himself was crucified. The teaching of today’s gospel is diametrically opposed to all of that.

Christianity does not ask me to become a doormat, or some sort of rag-doll that everybody can kick around the place. It doesn’t ask me to become a wimp. Through the power of God’s Spirit in me, I am asked to become extraordinarily strong, because it requires great strength of character, and great single minded resolve to be able to forgive, or to turn the other cheek. Just think of the trouble many of us have in loving our friends! Today we are asked to forgive our enemies. I must never forget that, by myself and of myself, I just don’t have what it takes to do what Jesus asks me to do.

Jesus speaks of his Father in heaven as being a model for our loving. We are all children of God. He loves all of us equally. He loves us because he is good and, because God is love, he is not capable of loving anyone of us less than 100%. Just think what a wonderful world it would be if all of us could be inspired with such love. We ask the Holy Spirit to “enkindle within us the fires of divine love.” There is a lot of talk today about role models, and how important it is for the young to have people in their lives who live out the ideals and principles one hopes to instil in them. Certainly, as Christians, we have the role model par excellence, both in Jesus and in his Father.

In the beatitudes, Jesus speaks of the power of the meek, and the gentle. The bully cannot deal with the person who won’t strike back. The only way the world could stop Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King was to shoot them. They had a power, through their peaceful resistance and unwillingness to strike back, that threatened the might of the oppressor. It was Herod and the helpless baby all over again.

In the old days there was a reliable way of catching monkeys in Africa. A hole was scooped out of a tree, and some nuts were placed in the hole. The monkey came along, discovered the nuts, and grabbed a fist of them, only to discover that, with his fist full of nuts, he was unable to withdraw his paw. Extraordinary as it may seem, the monkey was so intent on getting the nuts that he would not let go of them, as the hunters approached, and threw a net over him! Today’s gospel speaks of letting go, of resentments, unforgiveness, etc. There is extraordinary freedom in being big enough to forgive, and to let go of grudges.

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt youself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.

Second Reading: First Epistle to the Corinthians 3:16-23

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.

Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”

So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apol’los or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.

Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.