Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 20, 2011 – St. John’s, Goshen
With today’s Gospel we hear the last two of the solemn statements in which Christ explains what the greater righteousness is that will be required if one is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Once again, he goes beyond the minimum that a commandment might require and demands instead the maximum that love may desire.
As he began by commanding that we not simply refrain from murder, but also not be angry or insult our brothers and sisters, so he ends with these two statements today. The Old Testament had tried to reduce violence in the community by limiting the revenge one could take for an offense to the injury inflicted: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and nothing more than that was what the adage meant. But Christ requires more: that not only do we not seek revenge but that we not even resist evil, that we turn the other cheek, give our cloak as well as our coat, walk a second mile.
The Old Testament could be read as restricting love to members of Israel’s own community, leaving others outside the range of love. But Christ requires more: that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Tax collectors–despised members of Jewish society in those days–love those who love them; pagans greet those who greet them. More is expected of Christ’s disciples.
This surely runs entirely contrary to what St. Paul, in our second reading, calls ‘the wisdom of this world.” In Mediterranean societies for millennia a culture of revenge has been dominant, and the early Fathers of the Church had to struggle to make demands like those we have heard the last two weeks simply intelligible, never mind achievable, so opposed were these demands to the common sense of the day. A few years ago, someone familiar with the local culture in poor areas of the District of Columbia told me that if a young man tried to live by these commandments of Christ, he would lose all respect from his peers. He simply could not tolerate being “dissed” without responding in kind. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why there often is such an escalation of violence in such groups.
But we may see examples of the spiral of violence much closer to home, too. One insult provokes another. Words grow more bitter and more cutting, and things are said that can’t be taken back and that can hurt for decades. Families divide and relationships dissolve. (I remember two sisters in our little town who lived very close to one another but did not speak to one another for some thirty years, and died alienated, all because of an initial misunderstanding that one of them would never let be healed.) Or things move beyond words to actions, physical abuse, and other kinds of violence. It happens all the time.
Christ’s radical response to such spiraling cycles of evil is to refuse to let the evil go beyond oneself, by not retaliating in kind, by initiating efforts at reconciliation, by forgiving, even by absorbing the evil in oneself, like an ink-blotter (I heard someone once say) rather than have its stain one’s own heart and from there spread out upon others. The world needs people who do not return evil for evil, who love their enemies, who do good to them, who even pray for them. Isn’t this among the most important differences that the Church can make, that we can make? That because we are here, and we are living a Christian life, the number of people who believe in an eye-for-an-eye justice is smaller in this area than it would be otherwise, that is, if there were no Church here, or if we were not trying to live a Christian life?
Two great saints from early Christian history recognized the difficulty involved in living up to these statements of Christ, those from last week and today’s. St. John Chrysostom said that they represent the highest point of virtue. St. Augustine said, “Of all the commandments of the Lord, there is none more difficult, and none more wondrous, than loving one’s enemies.” No, these commandments are not easy to follow, and, contrary to what is often said about people who attempt to live them, they require extraordinary strength and courage. Anyone who thinks it is easy or a sign of weakness to turn the other cheek or to forgive has obviously never tried either. It requires “a vigorous soul and great effort,” St. John said.
That great saint recognized the resistance his preaching would meet. “How is this possible?” he expected to hear someone object. His reply pointed to the same great example of it that brings us together here this morning. “Having seen God become man,” he replied to the objection, “and descend so far and suffer so much for your sake, do you still wonder and doubt how it is possible to forgive your fellow-servants for their injuries to you? Do you not hear him on the cross saying, ‘Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing?’ Do you not hear Paul saying, ‘He who has gone up on high and is sitting on the right hand is interceding for us?’” It should be of great comfort to know that Christ has forgiven us and intercedes for us when we fail to live up to these challenging demands. But even as we pray everyday, “Forgive us our trespasses,” we are grateful also to have so high an ideal towards which to stretch ourselves.