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The Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 23, 2020

 

    A few years ago I attended a presentation over at Town Hall given by a Muslim medical doctor from the Gaza Strip whose three daughters and a niece were tragically and senselessly killed one night in their family home by Israeli shells that should never have been fired. The tragedy could have embittered the man for life; instead, it led him to write an incredibly moving book that earned him a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The book is entitled ”I Shall Not Hate.” Instead of calling for revenge or retaliation, the doctor calls for dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis, expressing 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, a timely one, and a more powerful homily on today’s gospel than I could ever give.

      “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….”

     Is it telling or not that the best homily I ever heard on those words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount was the lecture given by that Muslim doctor! But the words of Jesus
words aren’t just words: they are commandments. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is the new Moses, the new Lawgiver, and he lays down commandments so lofty and idealistic that we might wonder if Jesus was maybe out-of-touch with life’s harsher realities. But, of course, he wasn’t. No more than that Muslim doctor was. Jesus knew the dark side of human nature only too well, and in the end he would himself 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 another part says, ‘Jesus was divine. I’m only human.’ But we don’t get off that easily. Divinity for Jesus was not a shortcut around 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, too often 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 far from theoretical. At the personal level we deal with them all the time in our relationships with family members, co-workers, friends. Too often, we look for ways to get even for slights, hurts, and misunderstandings. Too often, we pay back in kind and, in so doing, we only make matters worse. That’s at the personal level.

      At the societal level – between peoples and nations - we do the same. Many of the wars down through history come to mind, and so do actions that bring us perilously close to war like the recent attacks and counter-attacks in Iraq and Iran, the repercussions of which we may not yet have seen. And then there is the issue of the death penalty which is before our State legislature again this session. Our governor has made it clear that no executions will take place on his watch – good for him - but getting the prohibition of the death penalty enshrined in law has proven difficult, to say the least. And even if it passes, it’s one thing to change a law and another thing to change minds. And, on this issue, sad to say, Catholics are just as likely as the general population to favor the death penalty even though the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the teachings of recent Popes – including Pope Francis who has called the death penalty unacceptable in all cases – all make it crystal clear that State-sponsored executions are incompatible with the teaching of Jesus.

     And there is more here 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, Jesus who accepted 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”, we heard him say in today’s gospel, “you must be perfect 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. This is not to say that society cannot protect itself from aggressive and violent offenders. It must, 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.

     In a powerful sermon he once preached on non-violence, Dr. Martin Luther King 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 embraced 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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