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The Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 19, 2023

Watch this homily! (Begins at 37:50)

     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.” Our Christian 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 just be the hardest thing about our faith. But they are more than words: they are commands. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, the new Lawgiver, but his commandments are so lofty and demanding that we might wonder if Jesus was out-of-touch with the harsher realities of life. 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 no 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 normal human 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, were we to do what he did, wouldn’t we become doormats? Wouldn’t human society dissolve into anarchy?
These are far from theoretical questions. They’re very practical, and they’re timely. At the societal level the issue of the death penalty comes to mind. It’s hard to read the gospel – particularly today’s gospel – and find any defense for capital punishment. The same goes for the teachings of recent popes, including Pope Francis. And yet, credible polls indicate that about 60% of Catholics still favor the death penalty.

      There’s some history here, some unhappy history. The Church itself down through the ages, when it was a secular power, made liberal use of the death penalty. A chilling thought, but true, and it continued well into the 19th century. And you have to wonder, how could that ever have happened? Where was the teaching of Jesus? Did it count for nothing? And did Jesus’ own personal embrace of non-violence count for nothing - Jesus who, when he became the target of human cruelty, refused to retaliate, instead, 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 violence or revenge but with love. After all, God makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust alike, shows mercy and compassion to all, especially 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.

     I want to share with you a story I’ve shared with you before. It merits repeating. A few years ago, I attended a lecture over at Town Hall given by a Muslim doctor by the name of Izzeldin Abuelaish, a remarkable prophet of peace. 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 listen - to each other. And he expresses the hope that his daughters will be (I quote) “the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis.” Would that his hope would be realized, I found myself thinking during our recent pilgrimage when we came uncomfortably close to an outbreak of hostilities! Any way you look at it, it’s a remarkable story 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 famously 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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