Sunday, February 19, 2017

TAKING IT ON THE CHIN FOR CHRIST: a homily for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A, (Matthew 5:38–48)

The audio can be heard here.
I have a friend who, once, when he was in his late teens was attacked while on his way to a prayer meeting (very pious I know).  He met a guy he barely knew and when he said hello the other guy responded by trying to beat him up.  The other guy was older, bigger and a lot tougher and meaner than my friend and he got a few digs in before my friend retaliated (good job the other guy was drunk or he might have done my friend in).  My friend had an umbrella with him so he hit him with it.  It was one of those long umbrellas with a pointed metal end and he hit him with the pointy end, right in his ‘most vulnerable spot’.  If you come from where we come from you do not fight clean.  That got the other guy’s attention and he stopped hitting him.  Still my friend felt so guilty then that he helped the man home.   Self-defense is a natural response so it is hard for us to hear our Lord appear to reject it.   So this is one of those Gospel passages that bite hard and deep.  I always find it so.  
Last week we had ‘if your eye causes you to sin tear it out’ and this week we have an ‘eye for an eye’ but what do these sayings mean?  Well, ‘if your eye causes you to sin tear it out’ is a metaphor and it means be prepared to make any sacrifice rather than do evil, that is, commit a sin.  Likewise with ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ we have a metaphor.  Oh how that has been misinterpreted and misused over the centuries!  If you do not know what it really means it can also seem cruel and vengeful.  When one reads it in its original context it appears quite different.  In 1901 archaeologists discovered the Code of Hammurabi, written down 1,750 years before Christ, that’s nearly 4,000 years ago.  In that code the punishment for theft was the loss of a hand much as it is in the Muslim Sharia law.  You can imagine what happens to anyone who does more serious damage!  ‘An eye for an eye’ in that context represents a rejection of the kind of law that the code of Hammurabi and Sharia law stand for.  ‘An eye for an eye’ is not a law of vengeance but a law of moderation and justice; it means that the punishment should fit the crime.  It means that one ought not to seek more than what one has lost.
I heard a story many years ago about a fire in Chicago in the very building where one of the firemen lived.  The man’s little daughter was trapped on a window ledge and he had to urge her to jump and reassure her that he would catch her.  In the end he had to order her, yell at her to jump or she would die.   She jumped and he caught her.  Christ is inviting us to make a leap of faith too.  We are so attached to the things of this world that we fear that we will loose not just what we have but even who we are.  He is not only reassuring us He is demanding of us that we leap in faith to Him and that whatever we lose is far outweighed by what we will gain.  Only in the leap of faith that takes the Gospel seriously and applies it consistently can we really come to know how much He loves and cares for us.
Every era has its difficulties and trials.  At the time of our Lord Israel was under Roman control.  The Roman legionaries could force locals to carry their packs for them and it would have been quite challenging for them to hear that if any of them were forced to do so they should go the extra mile.  Why go this extra mile? For love of the other, concern for their soul and their salvation.  If we truly love another we will lay down our lives in service of them.  We will not be concerned how others serve and look after us but how we look after and serve them.
As with last Sunday’s Gospel passage, the Lord wants us to go beyond the demands of the objective moral order, of justice and right and wrong, to the realm of genuine love, love understood as self-gift and self-sacrifice.  He wants us to make a leap of faith in Him and to trust in His Providence.  The Lord wants us to go beyond worldly moderation and the concern for justice and restitution into the realm of heroism and nonviolence.  He wants us not only to forego vengeance and retaliation but at times to forego even self-defense.  We are to stand our ground and take the licks that come our way and give freely from what we have, especially to those who are in need.
  Why?  Because we are living our life with one foot already in the Kingdom of God.  There is a scene in World War II drama Band of Brothers.  A young paratrooper is sitting in his foxhole terrified.  A lieutenant comes to him and explains that the reason he is afraid is that he still has hope, he still believes he can survive.  It is only when he accepts that he is already dead that paradoxically he can function and perhaps live.  We too must see ourselves as already dead!  But we are the dead who have hope in Christ.  We can bring nothing with us when we die and even our existence will be forgotten within a generation or two.  How many of us can name our great or great-great grandparents?  Once we understand that all we have here is temporary and that our real, lasting home is in Heaven then we can face up to our mission: to spread the Good News of the Kingdom of God by our words and deeds.  We are to have our treasure with Him not with this world.  We are to model ourselves on Him as He is the perfect image of His Father.  If we are truly His disciples then we realize that the only real enemies we have and should fear are our sins. 

This mission demands self-sacrifice.  Self-sacrifice can mean difficult discussions with loved ones and time spent learning about the faith.  Sacrifice can mean time given to listening to others, or given in care for others.  Sacrifice can mean losing friends, relatives or even employment.  Our faith can never be private.  It must always have a public dimension.  By our own power this is beyond us but by His power nothing is impossible.  We can be perfect, we can be holy as the Father is perfect and holy through our union with Christ.  Through Him, with Him and in Him we have all the resources we need to fulfill the Lord’s command, to turn the other cheek and  to walk the extra mile.

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