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The 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 19, 2017

Click here to listen to this homily (.mp4 file)

    I don’t give titles to homilies but if I did, I think I’d call this one, “Journey to the Center of the Faith,” or maybe, “The Hardest Thing About Our Faith.” Our faith is about many things, but at the heart of it are the words from the Sermon on the Mount in today’s gospel: “You have heard the commandment, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to evil. When a person strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other….You have heard the commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor but hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies, pray for your persecutors….”

     Those words of Jesus may well be the hardest things about our faith. But they aren’t just words: they’re really commandments. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is the new Moses, the new Lawgiver, but his commandments are so lofty and idealistic that we might wonder if Jesus was a bit out-of-touch with life’s harsher realities. But, of course, he wasn’t. Jesus knew the dark side of human nature only too well, and in the end he would become a lightning rod for human cruelty at its worst. Even so, he refused to strike back. When nailed to the cross he spoke only words of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

     There’s a part of us that stands in utter amazement at this, but there’s another part that says, ‘Jesus was divine. I’m only human.’  But we don’t get off that easily. Divinity for Jesus was not a shortcut around his humanity. That would turn the Incarnation into play-acting.  No, Jesus, who was “tempted like us in all things,” must himself have struggled to get beyond the urge to strike back.  And you and I?  Rather than struggle with it, we look for ways to justify it because if we took Jesus at his word, did what he did, wouldn’t we become doormats, and wouldn’t human society dissolve into anarchy?

      These are legitimate questions and they’re far from theoretical. At the societal level the issue of the death penalty is a good case in point.  It’s pretty hard to read the gospel – particularly today’s gospel – and find any defense for capital punishment. The same is true for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the teachings of recent popes and of our own  bishops. And yet, credible polls indicate that fully 60% of Catholics favor the death penalty. Only 32% oppose it.

      How can this be? And how can it be that the Church itself down through the ages, when it was a secular power, made liberal use of the death penalty?  How can this be in light of the teaching of Jesus? But there is more than the teaching of Jesus: there is also Jesus’ own personal embrace of non-violence that I referred to earlier, Jesus who, when he became the target of human cruelty, refused to retaliate - accepting death, opening his arms on the cross – as if to say, only in this way will we ever break the endless cycle of retaliation and revenge.

     All this can seem naïve, but Jesus says that it is God’s way and that means it must be our way, too. “You must be perfect”, he says, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

     My friends, Jesus calls us to do nothing less than what God does in the face of evil: confront it, not with more evil, but with love – God who makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust alike, who shows mercy and compassion to all, who, as Jesus makes so clear, lavishes mercy on those who are in the grip of evil.  This is not to say that society doesn’t need to protect itself from dangerous and violent offenders. It does, of course. But to take a life in order to exact revenge for another life is to play God and to sin against the inherent value of each and every human life.

     Let me share with you an experience I had a few years ago that awakened me to this foundational Christian teaching, an experience all the more powerful because it involved a non-Christian, a Muslim doctor by the name of Izzeldin Abuelaish, a remarkable prophet of peace who shared his story one night over at Town Hall. His three daughters and a niece were tragically and senselessly killed one night by Israeli shells that should never have been fired but which directly hit his home in Gaza. His response to that tragedy that stripped him of the very dearest people in his life is set forth in an extraordinary book entitled “I Shall Not Hate.”  Instead of calling for revenge or retaliation, he calls for dialogue -- for Palestinians and Israelis to talk to each other. And he expresses the hope that his daughters will be (in his words) “the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis.” A remarkable story, I’m sure you’ll agree, and a more powerful homily on today’s gospel than I could ever give.

     Another powerful homily on non-violence was the life and teaching of Dr. Martin Luther King who once said that, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

     My friends, we live in a night all too devoid of stars, but it doesn’t have to be this way. When He opened his arms on the cross and willingly accepted death, Jesus showed us the path to peace and reconciliation, and every time we offer this Sacrifice in his memory and receive into our own bodies His Body that was broken for us, Jesus not only shows us the path to peace and reconciliation, he takes us there. But only if we’re willing to go.

Father Michael G. Ryan 




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