19 Feb, 2017. 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Theme: We naturally resent those who do us wrong. But hatred, if nurtured, can come between us and God, whose ideal of perfection is mercy.
1st Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
God calls us to love our neighbour as ourselves
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 yourself. 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.
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:16-23
The Church is the body of believers and the temple of God
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
The ultimate ideal: Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect
Jesus said to his disciples, “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.”
Are we asked for the impossible ?
(José Antonio Pagola)
The call to be perfect it’s a tall order, but somehow it touches our hearts. Many of his hearers must have welcomed Jesus’ call to love God and love our neighbour, as the best synthesis of the Law given through Moses. What they couldn’t imagine is that one day he would speak to them about loving their enemies; but Jesus did just that. Without any backing from the Old Testament, and distancing himself from the psalms of vengeance that often fed the people’s prayer, and opposing the general climate of hate that breathed all around him, Jesus proclaimed this demand with absolute clarity: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you”.
His language is outrageous and surprising, but completely coherent with his experience of God. The Father isn’t violent: God loves even the wicked and does not seek anyone’s destruction. God’s greatness doesn’t consist in the power to condemn but in unconditionally loving everyone. Whoever wishes to be a child of that God will bring into the world neither hatred nor anyone else’s destruction. Of course we may – and should – pray for the conversion of the wicked.
Love of enemy isn’t a minority ideal for Jesus, meant for people who are called to a heroic perfection. His challenge is to introduce into history a new attitude in the face of those we feel to be our enemy because his whole desire is to eliminate hate and destructive violence from the world. Whoever is like God will not nourish hate against anyone, but will seek the good of all, including their enemies.
But Jesus knows what life is like. When he speaks of love of enemy, he isn’t asking us to nourish feeling of affection or sympathy or tenderness toward anyone who has done evil to us. The enemy continues being someone from whom we can expect harm, and it’s difficult for us to be able to change the feelings of our heart.
To love our enemy means above all to not do him evil, to not even wish harm to him. We don’t need to get upset if we don’t feel any positive love for him. It’s natural that we feel ourselves wounded or humiliated, but we try not to keep feeding hate and the thirst for vengeance. Eventually we can take another step forward and actually be willing to do him good if we find him in need. We need to remember that we are at our noblest and best when we forgive rather than when we rejoice at another’s misfortune.
Sincere forgiveness of enemies isn’t easy, and in some circumstances we could find it practically impossible to avoid thirsting for vengeance. No one needs to judge anyone else from the outside. Only God understands the heart and forgives unconditionally, even when we aren’t able to do so ourselves. But it remains the challenge set out by Jesus, and a grace which we should always pray to receive.
Putting aside revenge
In times past, God was often feared as an ever-vigilant policeman, raising a stern, warning finger to us, with the ominous words, “God sees you, even when nobody else does.” People were obsessed by the thought that God was judging our every action. “Will you never take your eyes off me, long enough for me to swallow my spittle?,” begged (Job 7:19). This fear is echoed in the words of Ecclesiasticus, “Their ways are always under his eye, they cannot be hidden from his sight” (17:15).
Imagining God as a severe and implacable judge, instead of drawing souls to him, can have negative results on the mind and heart, as famously testified by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Somewhere in his autobiography he tells how during an innocent boyhood prank, he suddenly remembered those words, “God is watching me.” His response was to curse this judgmental God, and he became a bitter atheist for the rest of his life. Sartre went on to describe the human person as a responsible but lonely individual, adrift in a meaningless world, with a terrifying freedom to choose, living in a state of constant, existential 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 just trust in him, a sense of being loved and cared for, not because of what we do, 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 in-discriminating in his compassion; he is a Father who is prodigal in his forgiveness.
God is no angry policeman or judge, threatening our lives. Rather God wants us to live life to the full, to grow, to come to maturity and fulfilment, to grow in the image of God. 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 today’s gospel says, God treats all alike. He causes the sun to rise on the bad people as well as the good, and the rain – such a blessing in parched, semi-desert Israel – to fall on the honest and dishonest alike. And that is why Christ tells us that in our attitudes too, there must be no spite, hatred, or 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.
By the way, 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 who offended them. It became known as the Law of recompense or retaliation (Lex talionis) and was meant to put limits on seeking revenge. When the book of Genesis reports some early murders and the feuding between families and clans, it suggests how disproportionate vengeance can be: “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 racial vendettas – which we have witnessed in our own times also in the wiping out of whole villages, even cities, by way of retaliation – can cause the virtual collapse of society. We have seen 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.
Other thinkers 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!’
The basic Christian ethic asks us to continue to grow more like our God. Many people would like the Church to lay down a clear minimum which a person must achieve in order to be justified. But Jesus is always prompting us to go a step further. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” Jesus asks for extra: “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… but he never says “You have done enough; no more is required.”
Some people see life in terms of survival of the fittest, or ‘dog-eat-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. Learning peaceful ways of solving interpersonal and international difficulties is one of the greatest needs of our age. The way is open to Christians to develope more non-violent means of solving conflicts and becomes peacemakers.
God’s merciful goodness towards us is shown most clearly in the life and death of Jesus Christ. This Jesus wants 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. Where Matthew has Jesus saying: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” Luke’s version of Jesus’ words is: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.” Now that’s something to think and pray about.