7th Sunday Ordinary Time
Year A (23 Feb 2014)
When my father was just a few days short of his 80th birthday, he was attached late one afternoon by two young men while he was fishing on the bank of the river on the farm on which he was born. They first tried to drown him but he’s tough and strong for his age and fought back fiercely. He speaks Xhosa and challenged his attackers for disrespecting their culture which teaches respect for old people. Perhaps that’s what persuaded them not to kill him.
They tied him up with fishing line, wrapped his jersey around his head and dragged him into the bushes where they left him. He managed to uncover his head and untie his feet and he walked with his hands bound in semi-darkness for 2 kms through the riverbed and up a small kraans to a farm house to find help. The fishing line around his wrists had cut into the flesh and he got severe septicaemia that very nearly killed him.
My father found it impossible to forgive the 2 guys who’d attached him and found it equally impossible to pray the ‘Our Father’ which says that we must forgive those who trespass against us. I suggested to the police that should the men be found they be given a good hiding before being formally charged; thrashed until they bled and cried for mercy. I wanted ‘an eye for an eye’ – and isn’t that just so very human?
No it isn’t says Jesus because we must be holy; we are created in the image of God and we must reflect the holiness of our heavenly Father.
The first reading from the Book of Leviticus opens with God instructing Moses to tell the people ‘You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.’ The essential theme of Leviticus is a call or vocation to holiness. In the reading we have the very core of our Christian vocation: “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself”.
The Gospel reading reiterates this commandment and follows on directly from last week’s gospel taken from the Sermon on the Mount. These words are the living, beating heart of our vocation as Christians; this is probably the toughest test we face as professed Christians. This is the stick with which we will be beaten by critics of church and religion; our ability or inability to love, forgive and pray for those who have hurt us.
Jesus addresses that appealing instinct in our human nature to get even when we have been hurt. Interestingly the Law of Retaliation that one should take ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is actually a merciful option demanding that one should only retaliate to the extent of the injury i.e. if someone steals your cell phone you’re not entitled to burn down their house or stone them to death. This law was never intended to give the individual person the right to extract justice on a tit for tat basis. It was intended as a guide for a judge in assessing the appropriate penalty for an offender.
But Jesus says that retaliation of any kind is unacceptable. We are called to holiness and must be perfect as our Father is perfect.
What does Jesus mean by being perfect? The Greek word that Matthew uses here is more functional and purpose driven than some abstract idea of perfection being something without flaw. In the Greek understanding something is perfect if it fully realises the purpose for which it has been designed or made. This church building, for example, is perfect as opposed to a temporary structure. A key that opens a lock is perfect compared to a jimmied piece of wire.
So when Jesus says we must be perfect, he’s saying that we must fulfil the purpose for which we have been created: To know, love and serve God and love our neighbour as ourselves.
This love is not the love we feel for our parents, or our children; nor the affection we feel for our friends or the passion we feel for our spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend. This is not a love of the heart over which we sometimes have little control; this is a love of the will. We love because we choose to love rather than hate.
This is the love of benevolence and goodwill that will never allow bitterness to smother our hearts. We love even those whom we don’t like and who don’t like us; perhaps a member of the family who doesn’t like us; or that work colleague or classmate who gets under our skin; perhaps even here in our own faith community there are people we think have snubbed us and we avoid them because we don’t like them. Sometimes it is these quite insignificant personal irritations that undermine our very ability to fulfil our vocation as Christians.
Our desire to get even, the desire for revenge and retribution, makes a mockery of our Christian promise to love as Jesus loved.
Jesus says ‘if one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other side.’
If a right-handed person wanted to smack me across the right cheek, the most effective way to do that would be to hit me with a backhand. In Jewish law to hit a person with the back of your hand was twice as insulting as to smack with the flat of your hand. So Jesus is saying that no matter how strong the insult, we must not retaliate nor hold a grudge.
He says that just as the Father is consistent with his love for the good person as he is for the evil person, so too we must be consistent in excluding no-one from our love.
There is no more difficult challenge for us as Christians than following the instructions given to us tonight in the Gospel: Love, forgive and pray for those who hurt us.
The two men who attacked my father have never been caught. My dad is now 90 years old and has found peace and forgiven them in his heart.
For as long as we demand an eye for an eye, in our families, our communities and our countries the world will be filled with blood stained faces; bleeding men, women and children.