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The Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 20, 2022

Watch this homily!

     Can you think of a greater challenge in all the Gospels than the one we just heard? I can’t. Even the dulling effect that comes from repeated hearings over the years cannot blunt the sharp edge of these sayings of Jesus from Luke’s Gospel. “I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. When someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other also. Judge not. Condemn not. Forgive.”

     Beautiful words. But what do you do when the words come off the page and into your life? What do you do when someone does something really terrible to you - steals from you, tarnishes your reputation, or physically attacks or injures you or someone you love? What do you do with this teaching of Jesus then?

     Was Jesus naïve? Unaware of life’s harsh, sometimes brutal realities? We might be inclined to think so - until we remember that Jesus became a lightning rod for human cruelty at its worst and yet was able to speak from the cross unbelievable words of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” How can this be? We stand in utter amazement at those words, but we also tend to find ourselves thinking, “Jesus was divine. I’m only human.” A ‘cop out’, my friends. A ‘cop out!’  Jesus’ divinity was not a shortcut around human challenges and realities. I suspect that Jesus, who was “tempted in all things” had to struggle to get beyond striking back. And you and I? Too often, rather than struggle with it, we find ways to justify it. After all, if we took Jesus at his word, did what he did, where would it all stop? Wouldn’t we become doormats and wouldn’t society descend into anarchy. Love, forbearance, and forgiveness must have some limits. Right?

      These are understandable questions and I don’t claim any simple answers to them. But maybe it’s helpful to be clear about what Jesus was not saying. I don’t think, for example, that Jesus was giving a roadmap for how society should structure its criminal justice system. He left the making and enforcing of necessary laws to the likes of you and me. No, Jesus was striking at something far deeper: he was speaking to the depths of the human heart and conscience where beliefs and attitudes are formed and values embraced. He was proclaiming the new law of love, a strikingly radical vision of morality. He was telling us that, in the end, only love can break the cycle of violence – the endlessly repetitive cycle of violence always followed by retaliation - that underlies and poisons so much of what goes on in our personal lives and relationships and, of course, in our society, our world. For what happens on the global scale gets its start in human hearts.

     And Jesus didn’t just speak idealistic words, he showed us the way to break the cycle of violence. He did. When his own life hung in the balance, he refused to hate or to strike back. He allowed nothing to stop him from loving and forgiving. Nothing! And he made no apology for his new way. He made it very clear that what he was doing was God’s way. “Be merciful,” he said, “Be compassionate, be forgiving, be holy.” Why? “Because your heavenly Father is compassionate and forgiving and holy.”

     My friends, that, I think, is the key to understanding this most difficult, yet most liberating, of all the teachings of Jesus. It’s no longer the Golden Rule (‘do as you want done to you’); it’s ‘Do as God does.’ Jesus is calling us to do nothing less than what God does in the face of evil and violence - confront them, not with more violence but with good - God who makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust alike, God who never grows weary of showing kindness and compassion to people no matter who they are. And isn’t that exactly what Jesus did, Jesus who showed great kindness to those who were in the grip of evil, Jesus who spent so much of his time with sinners, loving them without limit?

     Even so, how do we translate this into the world we live in? That’s where things get tricky. Think, for instance, of the present situation in Ukraine. War and aggressions are great evils. Pope Francis calls war “madness”. But can aggression be met with passivity? Hardly. Innocent lives are at stake; international order is at stake. And so, we end up trying to save lives by taking lives. But is that the final answer? It can’t be, can it? – because we who follow Christ must grapple with such questions and let his teaching form and disturb our consciences. And isn’t it true that if his teaching were to take root in human hearts and consciences, this would be a far different world?

     Or take another question whose answer I find more clear-cut: the question of how society should deal with its most vicious criminal offenders. With justice, firmness, and fairness, for sure, but what about the death penalty? The Church used to defend it and even to inflict it, but the Popes from John Paul to Benedict to Francis have spoken out against it. Strongly. Why? Because the death penalty is incompatible with the teaching of Jesus. Pure and simple. That’s why Pope Francis definitively revised the Church’s official teaching as set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, calling the death penalty “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the human person that is inadmissible in all cases.” You can’t get much clearer than that, can you! Shocking, then, isn’t it, that, if the statistics can be trusted, the majority of Catholics continue to believe that capital punishment is an appropriate way to deal with our most violent criminal offenders?

     In this regard, I think of words of Dr. Martin Luther King that beautifully echo the teaching of Jesus: “the ultimate weakness of violence,” he said, “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.”

     And here are some other words that come from a little book I pick up now and then. It’s called The Book of Uncommon Prayer. It’s full of down-to-earth wisdom rooted in the Gospel. The author is Brian Doyle, a popular and prolific writer, Catholic to the core. I’m going to let his words about violence be the last word this morning. Here they are.
“I dream of a world where violence is a memory and cruelty is a word you have to look up in a dictionary.” Not bad. I think that’s the kind of world Jesus dreamed of. And so should we. But, of course, we must do more than dream….

Father Michael G. Ryan





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