Homily for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 18, 2007
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on 1 Samuel 26:2-23; Psalm 103; ! Corinthians 15:45-49; Luke 6:27-38)
There are a lot of people across our country who would say that following Christ is really a very simple matter. All you have to do is to follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.
It’s neat and easily understood. You can even measure it. The only problem is that it’s not the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Most of those people would probably be surprised to discover that Jesus didn’t create the Golden Rule. It’s not unique to Christianity. Jesus is simply repeating a good piece of wisdom teaching that could be found all across the Near East and Far East for centuries before his day. There are versions of the teaching in Hinduism and Buddhism and Confucianism and among the Sufis of Persia.
If that’s true, then what does the Gospel of Jesus call us to beyond the Golden Rule?
It turns out that of all the great religious leaders of world history Jesus is the only one who puts us before the challenge of loving our enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless them. Pray for them. That’s quite another matter than just keeping a healthy balance of accounts with people who are basically ‘our kind.’
At this point we might be inclined to say, “Well I don’t really have any enemies. I’m basically a relatively peaceful guy or gal, I get along with people pretty well. Talk of enemies is pretty strong language. I don’t think it applies much to me.”
Maybe things begin to look a little more challenging if we hear biblical scholars tell us that the real meaning of ‘enemies’ in those days was anyone who is not from my clan or tribe. We might call them today “outsiders.” They are ‘those other people’ who think and behave differently than ‘our crowd’–people we find it hard to understand.
In Israel in Jesus’ time (as in the Near East today; think of the Shias and the Sunnis and the Kurds) love and acceptance extended to one’s own kind. They’re the ones we know and understand. You don’t really deserve much credit if you treat them well because you know it will come back to you. Everybody else was seen as an enemy: people who makes us anxious, who threaten our security, our beliefs and ways of living.
What makes the message of the Gospel so challenging is that it calls us to respond in peace right in the face of someone whose existence is in our face. We’re called to love someone we perceive to be a direct threat to all we hold dear. Every human instinct in us is to protect, to defend, to react by lashing out when we think our way of live is being challenged. We fight for our good name, for our reputation, for our physical well-being. We will inflict pain on those whose existence causes us discomfort. “Bring it on!” Does it sound familiar?
In the story of Saul and David in !st Samuel we are treated to a great dramatic moment that could send chills down our spine.
You see, Saul the king had championed this bright young fellow David. He promoted his career. Until it began to get clear that David was becoming more popular and powerful with the people and troops, that is. Then Saul becomes, as one scholar put it, “a paranoiac madman” obsessed with the idea that he must eliminate this threat to his power.
And it leads to the amazing scene in today’s reading. You can just imagine how Steven Spielberg, or even Mel Gibson, would build the suspense. The dark cave, the sleeping king. His spear stuck in the ground by his head. Silence. Whispers between David and his lieutenant Abishai. It is the Lord who has set this whole scene and placed Saul right in the palm of David’s hand. How simple to just pull the spear and thrust it into Saul’s chest and end the whole sorry affair. David could even plead self-defense because he was being stalked all over the land. It all builds up to a dramatic moment of silence—and then it’s over. He will not take vengeance on the Lord’s anointed one.
How is it possible for us to practice love, acceptance, forgiveness in the face of this deep natural drive?
The truth is that by ourselves, by our own power, we can’t. This kind of love is a grace, a gift we can only pray for. We don’t ‘have it in us.’
But if it is ultimately a gift, that does not mean that we have no role to play, that we don’t have to work at the spiritual disciplines that can dispose us for this extraordinary way of responding.
There are two things we need to pray about.
The first is that we have been loved by the Lord when we stood in defiance of his ways. You see, this whole Gospel passage may appear to be about us but ultimately it’s one more occasion to reveal what God is about. “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” We have constantly to hold before our eyes the fact that we have been the object of unmerited mercy. When we were in our sin he remained faithful to his promise of mercy. It is one of the strongest threads that runs all through the Scriptures: we are called to receive the alien, the other, because we ourselves were once aliens.
The other thing we need to pray about is: just who is this other who is challenging us? He or she is also the anointed of the Lord. This sister or brother on whom we may be inclined to inflict pain because we have been hurt may not be anointed as a Near Eastern king like Saul. But he or she is anointed simply as God’s creature, and even more so by being plunged into the dying and rising of Jesus.
It’s a daunting task. But there is still one more aspect to consider if we are to hear all that is implied in the words of Jesus. As Jesus says “You must love your enemies” our English translation obscure the fact that Jesus uses ‘you’ in the plural. He’s addressing the Israelites—and us—as a people. The Gospel is not merely a matter of individual ethics. We are implicated as a body. What might that make us think about in our present world?
It’s interesting how the commentators are mulling over the probable prospects of the different candidates for the presidency in the coming elections. The figures suggest some interesting things about us as a people. Apparently we’ve come so far in our maturity that a decent majority of us say we could be ready for an African-American president. Maybe a woman president. But hey, a Mormon? Whoa! That’s too far out, they’re weird.
So who might we be inclined to keep as outsiders, as too other to be treated as equally anointed of the Lord? How are we doing with our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers? And what about our young men and girls who seem to be able to find human acceptance and meaning by throwing their lot in with gangs or losing themselves in drugs?
Let’s be quiet for a minute and let the words of today’s responsory psalm sink in more profoundly now that we have tried to appreciate what we are called to:
Bless the Lord, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits;
He pardons all your iniquities,
he heals all your ills.
He redeems your life from destruction,
he crowns you with kindness and compassion.
Merciful and gracious is the Lord,
slow to anger and abounding in kindness.
He will not always chide,
nor does he keep his wrath forever.
Not according to our sins does he deal with us,
nor does he requite us according to our crimes.
For as the heavens are above the earth,
so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he put our transgressions from us.
Ultimately we will only be able to expand our love to embrace all that is outside our comfort zone to the extent we can allow ourselves to enter into the mind and heart of the Jesus who is our Way:
In the face of his own death he will not break the bruised reed of those who taunt him and spit upon him and strip him of all human dignity. He does not react, but rather he is ale to remain a free agent. He chooses when and how he will respond to the high priest or to Pilate. And finally, after all that, at the end he says, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” He reveals the compassion of his Father to the very end.
We are promised a share in that same compassion when we come this day to the table of the Lord. You see, we too are the Lord’s anointed.