Homily from Deacon Joe Gerber
Feb. 18, 2017
7th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year A
First Reading: Leviticus19: 1-2, 17-18
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3: 16-23
Gospel: Matthew5: 38-48
This is one of those Gospels that I never really understood, or should I say have struggled with. Probably because of the part we are told to love someone who is trying to do you harm, and then we are expected to be perfect. It doesn’t seem logical to turn and offer your other cheek to someone who just hit you there. My problem is that when there is a Gospel that I struggle with, it is probably because I haven’t really reflected on it or studied it too much. The blessings of being a Deacon is that from time to time we are forced (and thankfully so) to reflect and study things that we personally struggle with and then have to share that with the people. I am guessing that if I am struggling with something many of you (not all I’m sure) have probably had trouble with Jesus’ teachings as well, and this may be one of them. By sharing with you what I have learned about these teachings I am also challenging you all to go deeper into them, and deeper into your relationship with Christ.
We continue today to hear Jesus’ sermon on the mount and as always, anything worth living for is going to be difficult. Jesus continues to call us to really look inside ourselves. In this sermon, Jesus teaches us about a variety of life issues that are still very relative today, such as anger, adultery, retaliation, almsgiving, prayer, money, judging others and discipleship.
For today’s teaching, which happens to be the one I struggle with, Jesus is teaching us how to respond to those who do us evil. He tells us to love them, and to pray for those who persecute us. If we allow the evil of others, and the hateful thoughts over take us, we cannot be people of peace. If we nurture memories of the times we have been hurt and convince ourselves that we have a right to vengeance, our lives will be in continual turmoil. Jesus tells us to adopt a radical new way of thinking. A new way of acting, a way that opposes the way of the world. This new way is what I struggle with as I am sure many still struggle with as well. He tells us to turn the other cheek. He tells us to love our enemies. He tells us to be pleasant with those who attach us or are against us. He tells us to be at peace not just with those who we get along with, but especially with those who hate us. He expects us to be perfect just as his Heavenly Father is perfect. We will be faced with good people and with evil and hateful people in our lives, and if we only love the good people then this is not being perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. We have to realize that others may or may not change their ways, but that we cannot allow their hateful/evil actions to change us. Becoming perfect is not about how others look at us, but how we look at others. For Jesus knows and teaches us that returning good for good is only being human, but returning good for evil is divine, this is what we are called to do.
I want to focus most of the remaining balance of my homily on the part I may have the most struggle with – Turing the other cheek. A teaching that runs completely opposite to the way the world thinks about things. What did Jesus really mean by this? We find it hard to understand what Jesus is trying to tell us in this day and age. Are we supposed to be passive in the face of evil? We might be thinking that if we find ourselves being attacked we need to have the moral courage not to retaliate, this itself is hard. But what about those close to us? Are we supposed to stand defenseless before our enemies? Are we not supposed to do anything if we see our spouse or children be attacked?
Being passive during confrontation is not at all what Jesus is teaching here. Jesus like all Kings of Israelite history, was a warrior. The way he recommends going to battle is a very unique way, one that truly conquers evil rather than continuing it. Now this is the beauty of really researching and studying the scriptures and trying to go beyond what it is you are struggling with in regards to what Jesus is really teaching us. In doing so I was able to come to a better understanding of offering someone your other cheek if they hit you (or insult you).
When we face hostility, oppression or injustice, two responses usually always present themselves - Fight or Flight. We will either oppose evil on its own terms by using its own weapons, in other words fighting back in the same way with blows or harsh word and evil thoughts, or we just run away. When we fight, it tends to answer back with violence (and that doesn’t always mean physical violence). An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth. Gandhi said something to the effect, that if we keep knocking out each other’s teeth and poking out each other’s eyes we will soon live in a toothless and blind world. How true is that? If we always simply run away (Flight), we then simply confirm the evil person’s evil, which in turn allows it to continue.
Instead of just fighting or fleeing in answer to evil, Jesus gives us a third option in a much more creative way. If we examine the text more carefully we see that Jesus is very specific in saying “If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well.” In the ancient world people never would use their left hand for any sort of social interaction or unclean task. Since Jesus was talking to an oppressed people, it was understood that supposed socially superior people (such as the Romans or a master to his servant) would insult them by slapping them with the back of their right hand and across the person’s right cheek. Romans would never strike a Jew with their fist since that would mean they were facing their equal (which they would never admit to). So, in that time to demean someone or to be demeaned you would slap or be slapped with the back of the right hand and on the right cheek.
So, when Jesus says turn the other cheek he is giving them a third and creative way to deal with evil. For when you turn the other cheek the oppressor cannot hit the right cheek again (demonstrate). Therefore, in doing so one has stood his ground in the face of violence and offered a challenge. You will not continue to treat me in an aggressive way. The recipient of the slap effectively mirrors the injustice back to the perpetrator. The supposed superior person is now defeated for they can no longer assert their dominance any further. In doing so they are challenged to see what they have done and to repent. A perfect example of this is a story about St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. One day she went to a local bakery to ask for bread for orphan children. The baker, outraged at people begging bread from him, spat in her face and refused. St. Mother Teresa calmly took out her handkerchief, wiped the spit from her face and said to the baker, “Okay, that was for me, now what about the bread for the orphans?” Silence followed and the baker gave her the bread.
If we take this understanding of the situation we see Jesus is not so much teaching us nonviolence as noncooperation. He is encouraging us to stand up for ourselves and to do it in a way that enhances our human dignity without turning into violence. This idea and way of thinking will turn hearts and nations. This is how we are to be perfect.
In this same Gospel by going on to talk about loving your enemy Jesus takes things further and stresses that we should see things the way God sees them. We should realize that we are all equal and all deserve prayer and love.What Jesus wants is for us to adopt a divine perspective and to see other people as they really are. He wants us to pray for everyone and to love them as God loves them. Jesus understands perfectly well that the best way to get people to behave better is to treat them with dignity and to appeal to their better instincts.
This is what is so challenging because it means that we should see the good in others, it means we should treat even our enemies as brothers. By acting towards others in this way brings the good out of them and frees them from the grip of the evil that they have fallen into. What we have therefore in this passage is not so much a teaching about unequivocal non-violence or love for enemies who continue to hate us. No, what Jesus is suggesting is that we should think more cleverly. We should stop our oppressors by standing our ground and challenging them by not giving into their same behaviors.
Jesus is telling us not to follow the ways of the world. Jesus is telling us that we should be agents of real change in the world by acting in unexpected ways. He is inviting us to think through the consequences of the old ways of doing things and to come up with new and unexpected ways of dealing with difficult situations.He wants us to see the world not from the bottom up like a victim but from the top down as God does. And by seeing the world the way it really is we will find that we are in a far better position to change it.
Jesus is preaching a Gospel of intelligence and imagination. He is inviting us to be active agents in the transformation of the world rather than being passive subjects and victims of old forms of oppression. Jesus wants us to be liberated and free citizens of the world, active agents in its transformation. He wants us to be the ones who will change the world and bring it ever closer to the Kingdom of God which is its true destiny. He wants us to be perfect, and you know what? We can be. Brothers and sisters, my challenge to you remains. Go deeper into these Holy words. Study the scriptures and bring them into the world. For then not only will it change, but so will you. Then we will be assured of Heaven.
- Deacon Joe Gerber