Sunday, February 23, 2014

Homily for 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
7th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Feb. 23, 2014
Matt 5: 38-48
Scouting NYLT, Putnam Valley, N.Y.
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” (Matt 5: 38).
The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch
Our gospel reading today picks up where last week’s left off.  We’ve been reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount for 3 weeks and will have 1 more week of it before Lent interrupts the sequence.  (Yes, gang, Ash Wednesday is almost upon us!)

Last week and this week Jesus is teaching us how our observance of God’s law must go beyond the bare minimum of observance.  You may remember that last week he said, “Unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).  The scribes and Pharisees, generally speaking, were pious men, very devoted to keeping the Law of Moses—they were the religious conservatives and traditionalists of 1st-century Judaism.  But Jesus calls his disciples to go deeper, to be more intense in our love of God and therefore our love of neighbor.  He calls us, in the last words of today’s gospel, to “be perfect” like our heavenly Father (5:48).

Now, obviously, we aren’t God.  We aren’t morally perfect.  The word Jesus uses in St. Matthew’s Greek (τέλειοι) has the idea of completeness or wholeness.  If our observance of God’s law, if our discipleship of Jesus, is to be complete, we have to strive to act toward other people the way God does.

And how does God treat people—which means you and me and everyone?  With even-handed mercy, with infinite patience.  Yes, there is the possibility of damnation; last week Jesus made references to Gehenna.  But final judgment belongs to God.  In this life we have Jesus’ teachings about patience in the face of persecution, about loving our enemies.

In the OT God set limits on the retribution that the Jews might seek, especially in a society less organized than ours, legally speaking; a society in which individuals often had to execute justice on their enemies or on criminals, somewhat like we imagine the Old West to have been in the absence of Wyatt Earp or John Wayne.  Thus the Book of Leviticus says, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (24:20); you could get even, but no more than that.  If someone knocked out 1 of your teeth, you couldn’t break 3 of his.

When we look at the Middle East today—from Libya eastward to Pakistan—and other places like the Central African Republic and South Sudan, we see cycles of vengeance.  That vengeance is often inflicted not merely on the perpetrators of some wrong—stolen cattle, an offense to someone’s honor, an allegation of political corruption, a physical injury, an act of terrorism—but even on completely innocent people who happen to belong to the wrong tribe, the wrong nationality, the wrong religion.  It goes far beyond the limits of the Law of Moses, which allows no more than an eye for an eye, allows an “evening-up” only from the actual perpetrator, not from his son, his cousin, the family next door.

Jesus makes a bigger demand on us:  “Offer no resistance to one who is evil” (5:39).  Then he gives several examples:  unjust assault, the requisitioning of one’s goods, forced labor imposed by the Roman military authorities.

In commanding us not to resist evil, Jesus is commanding us to be non-violent, to accept injury and wrongdoing to ourselves rather than harm someone else.  Being non-violent runs counter to our instincts of self-preservation, of self-defense, even of justice.  Certainly we have a natural right to protect ourselves from assault or robbery and to defend ourselves against lawsuits.  Jesus urges us not to exercise that right, in effect to imitate himself in his passion and death.  Very few Christians are actually willing and able to do that.  (My blood boils and my voice gets louder just as fast as anyone else’s, and if you punch me I’m likely to punch you back.)

Yet history does show us that non-violence can be powerful.  Remember Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence and MLK’s campaign for civil rights.  Remember also that the civil rights movement was explicitly rooted in the Bible as much as in our country’s foundational documents.  (Aside:  the civil rights movement as it has evolved today, demanding “abortion rights” and “gay rights,” rejects both the Bible and biological facts; it has become “the wisdom of this world” that is “foolishness in the eyes of God,” as St. Paul says today [1 Cor 3:18].)

Matthew’s gospel was addressed to Christians who were a tiny, oppressed minority within the Roman Empire.  Jesus’ words, then, speak to the individual behavior of disciples in relation to their neighbors and civil and religious authorities.  “Turning the other cheek” is something we can do individually.  Settling an unjust lawsuit is something we can do.  “Giving to one who asks of you” is something we can do.

But what are Christians to do when they are no longer a tiny, oppressed minority but in fact have become the civil and religious authorities?  Can a 21st-century police officer or governor “offer no resistance to one who is evil”?  Can a disciple of Jesus serve in the armed forces and still “love his enemies”?  How does the government provide for the needy in a fiscally responsible manner?  Being a disciple of Jesus has gotten a lot more complicated since 30 A.D.!

Christians are now involved in civil government with responsibility for protecting the public welfare:  people’s lives, property, and liberty.  Would it be right for a public official to turn the other cheek for the entire city or country, while criminals or armies rampage everywhere, looting, raping, burning, and killing?  Or does love for one’s neighbor require Christians to defend people, even with force if necessary?  20 years ago, Europe and the U.S. watched a million people be slaughtered in Rwanda, and tens of thousands more in Bosnia because, supposedly, those acts of “ethnic cleansing” didn’t concern us.
Rwanda: Deep gashes delivered by the killers
are visible in the skulls that fill one room at the Murambi School
For 3 years we’ve been watching the slaughter of 130,000 Syrians.  Do we have a responsibility to intervene, or is it OK to “turn our back on” people in need (cf. Matt 5:42)?  What does loving our neighbor mean for a world power that is also a democratic society?

St. Augustine
Basilica of Mary Help of Christians
The world of international politics and diplomacy, of course, is very complicated.  Wringing our hands or turning the other cheek isn’t an acceptable policy, but finding one that is acceptable by the standards of Jesus isn’t simple either.  At the beginning of the 5th century, in the face of barbarian invasions, St. Augustine laid out a theory of just war—when, how, and to what extent a nation might use force to defend itself and its vital interests.  We all have a moral obligation to study that theory and then to apply it to the real world, just as much as we have an obligation to learn the principles of sexual morality and of respect for the life and reputation of others, which Jesus spoke of last week.

Charlie Brown said, “Even paranoids have real enemies.”  Jesus recognized that people do have enemies, even nice people like his disciples.  There are a lot of people who hate Christians and persecute them, still today.  But Jesus tells us to love even our enemies and persecutors.  Not to trust them, necessarily:  but to wish them well and pray for them—wish and pray that they might be converted to goodness rather than hatred, for example; wish and pray that they might respond to the grace that God offers to everyone, and be saved.  We need to pray for jihadists and abortionists and drug lords and human traffickers and all evildoers.  The Gospel tells us that all things are possible for God; that includes the conversion of the worst sinners.

But, lest we get into judgment—Jesus condemns those who pass judgment on others—we need to remember that conversion has to start with ourselves.  None of us is actually “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.”  None of us lives completely and wholeheartedly according to the teachings of Jesus.  We all have some way to go before, in the words of the Collect today, “we carry out in both word and deed what is pleasing to” the Father.

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