Monday, February 24, 2014

Christ Enjoins Not Impossibilities But Perfection

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, 2014

There is a certain….  well we might call it satisfaction, that many of us might find ourselves feeling when someone gets their just deserts.  The internet is full of these little anecdotes today, isn’t it?
Someone cuts off a driver, and then runs into the back of a tractor trailer.
Someone says something mean and then smacks into a cupboard door.
Someone is rude to a waitress and then gets a pitcher of cold water in the lap…

And there is something that seems right about many of these things - it is as if God intervened to make sure that evil did not go unpunished.  When I was a kid, it seemed like many times when I did something bad, something bad would immediately happen to me.  Tease my sister - slip on the ice and fall on my face.  Say something mean - get my zipper stuck…  My mom used to call it instant karma.

In the ancient world, retaliation for wrongs was often swift and extreme.  A kind of instant karma.  If someone stole, their hand was severed.  If someone lied, their tongue cut off.  If they committed adultery they were stoned.  And many times retaliation was carried out against whole households, even down to three generations.

This kind of extreme retaliation was understood to be important and necessary in order to discourage sin and evil.  It makes sense: if you want to keep people from doing evil, make sure that the penalties are so staggering that no one will even attempt it.  If good will does not control them, at least fear will, right?

Now, some may think that we are far from that kind of a cruel world.  But I don’t think we really are.  Recently I saw the movie “Ender’s Game,” and in the movie there is a scene in which the main character gets into a fight with the bully and not only defends himself but goes a step further to seriously injure him.  Why?  Because, he explains, he wanted to make it clear to the bully and to everyone else that he was not weak, so that he would not have to deal with bullying again.  Weakness invites aggression, right?  Or in the first Harry Potter movie, you might recall that Harry’s horrible and abusive adoptive family is turned into pigs, and Harry and all the good people laugh and are satisfied that they received their just deserts.  How many times in movies today are we encouraged to sympathize with those who retaliate with extreme violence?  As if by committing a crime a criminal somehow is no longer human – as if they have forfeited their rights and dignity and can be treated like an animal.

Just look at what is going on in the Central African Republic as we speak.  Mobs of men who claim to be Christian are going out slaughtering Muslim men, women, and children in retaliation for the violence and torture that they endured in recent years.  And I don’t think that we are so much better.  It is the fallen human condition: it starts with us when we are even very young.  “He hit me first!”  We are so quick to think that violence is justified against the wicked, and that God himself must approve.

That was what we first thought of God: that he himself must hate the wicked and wish to destroy them.  But over time God began to show us the truth about himself and about his will for all of us.  In the first step in this revelation, Moses taught what most great civilizations and rulers have thought reasonable: that a just retaliation must match the severity of the initial crime.  Only an eye for an eye – not a life for an eye.  Only a tooth for a tooth, not a hand for a tooth.  When retaliation for a wrong exceeded this proportionate response, Moses taught that the people were falling into revenge and hatred and were doing evil in God’s sight.

And I think that this is where most of the world is today – what they think.  If someone kills, then you can kill them.  If they punch you, you can punch them.  If they are irresponsible, sue them, but the amount has to be reasonable.  Seems fair.  Seems the way that God would want things.

But Jesus shows us that God is not like this at all.  He is not the God of instant karma, of retaliation, even of proportionate retaliation.  Instead, Jesus says, our heavenly Father makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.  If we wish to be his children, Jesus says, we must follow his will, his way.  When someone strikes us on our right cheek, we should turn the other one as well.  And we should love our enemies as God loves them and pray for those who persecute us.

In a commentary on today’s Gospel, St. John Chrysostom writes beautifully about the path that Jesus leads us on through this gospel passage:

“Note through what steps we have now climbed, and how God has set us on the very pinnacle of virtue.
The first step is, not to do wrong to another;
the second, that in avenging a wrong done to us we be content with retaliating equally;
the third, to return nothing for what we have suffered;
the fourth, to offer one’s self to the endurance of evil;
the fifth, to be ready to suffer even more evil than the oppressor desires to inflict;
the sixth, not to hate him of whom we suffer such things;
the seventh, to love him;
the eighth, to do him good;
the ninth, to pray for him.”

By the progressive steps of this teaching, Christ leads us along the way of the cross, the way of perfect charity, that leads to eternal life.  He shows us how to be freed of the slavery that comes from hatred and retaliation and how to find the peace that comes from perfect charity.

And as we are about to say that this is too much, that ordinary men and women cannot possibly follow where Christ has trod, St. Jerome tells us: “Many, measuring the commandments of God by their own weakness, not by the strength of the saints, hold these commands for impossible, and say that it is virtue enough not to hate our enemies; but to love them is a command beyond human nature to obey. But it must be understood that Christ enjoins not impossibilities but perfection. Such was the attitude of David towards Saul and Absalom; the Martyr Stephen also prayed for his enemies while they stoned him, and Paul wished himself anathema for the sake of his persecutors.  Jesus both taught and did the same, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Christ instructs us.  We are not made for imperfect love, we cannot be satisfied with it.  In a world that all too often claims that violence and revenge are necessary, justified, or at least understandable, you and I must teach our children the truth: that our God is not a God of karma, that revenge is never his way, and it can never be the way of the Christian.  Our Heavenly Father is perfect love, he always wills the good for all people.  And so, with his grace, may it be for us.


  1. But why do we want to retaliate when someone has hurt us? Why do we want to make sure we don't get hurt in the first place (thereby making all those harsh laws)? Because we are afraid. Isn't that what hatred amounts to? We fear getting hurt by someone who should love us, or we fear being made a fool, or we fear the unknown (like the beliefs of a religion we don't understand). David, Stephen and Paul could love and forgive their enemies because they didn't fear them. This, too, comes from God: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul ..." (Mt. 10:28).

  2. Hmmm... I agree that fear is often the reason for retaliation, but I do not think it is exclusively so. Sometimes hatred and vindictiveness, the desire to make another person "pay" for the wrong they have done are at root. Sometimes it also seems that expediency and ambition are a motive - when another person has obstructed our will.
    So I think I would say that the absence of fear is a precondition, but not a guarantee that one will find the strength to forgive.