By Fr. Ray Reitzel, C.R.
The first reading from Leviticus reminds the children of Israel, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy!” They are holy because they have been set apart from other nations, “I am your God, and you are My people.” They are to give witness to the world of what happens when a people freely responds to the love of God. If the Israelites can refrain from having hate in their hearts, if they can renounce vengeance and grudges in relationships, if they can love their neighbours as themselves, then they will be like God, in all God’s holiness. They will be a living witness to the world of the blessings and life that come from the ways of forgiveness. In living this way, they will become more fully the image of God, who is described in the Responsorial Psalm 103 as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”. All this is addressed in today’s Gospel.
Our second reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians reminds us, “You are God’s holy temple.” We are God’s holy temple, first because we have been created by God, made to His own image. Secondly, by Baptism we have “put on Jesus Christ,” a perfect image of the Father. But this image often becomes tarnished because we are too distracted by the wisdom, and “foolishness” of this world, and too often lose sight of the Wisdom of God, and God’s world.
Matthew’s Gospel today sounds foolish when Jesus teaches us “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other. Love your enemies and pray for them.”
‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is an Old Testament teaching which has some merit in it.
Often when people seek revenge, they go overboard and do double the damage, and it keeps expanding. So the law allowed only equal retribution, and this was settled usually by a court of law.
Mahatma Gandhi retorted that if a society applied such a law literally; you would “end up with a toothless, blind society”.
He also is a perfect example of “turning the other cheek” rather than submitting to violence. This was well portrayed in the classic movie “Gandhi” when India was under the occupation of England. Gandhi always insisted on non-violence. There was the scene of the people lined up for many blocks, about 50 men wide, facing the British soldiers on horses with their batons. The front row of this huge line up was bludgeoned to the ground. These were carried off, and the next row was bludgeoned to the ground and they were dragged off. This went on for several days until the British finally relented. This was the beginning of their freedom in India. The people refused to meet violence with violence.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, in a homily on forgiveness (“Loving Your Enemies,” Alabama, November 17, 1957), insisted that forgiveness alone can stop the cycle of hurt and violence. King wrote, “Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, and toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. That is why we should love our enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. That’s why Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies,’ because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love, is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people, and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. So love your enemies.”
In loving and forgiving our enemies, we become more “God-like” or more “holy,” as God is holy. Why? The answer is because this is the essence of God, who continues to love and forgive us, no matter what our response. God cannot do otherwise. God continues to love and forgive, just as God continues to make the sun rise and shine on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
To love our enemies does not mean to like them, but to wish them well and pray for their conversion. We listen to the angels as they sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to people of good will (God’s will)”. Many of our “enemies” are of “good will”.
Jesus, in asking us to give away our coat, and our cloak as well, reminds us of St. Francis of Assisi stripping off all his clothes in the public square and handing them to his father. He refused to be controlled by the riches of his family, and identified himself with the poor.
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