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February 20: Seventh Sunday Ordinary Time Year A
Readings: Lev 19:1-2,17-18; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Matt 5:38-48
No revenge, no resistance, kindness to the enemy, loving the enemy, the way to holiness. These phrases help to focus on the central message proclaimed this Sunday. The readings offer us a most challenging message, to do the impossible: turning the other cheek; loving our enemies and to praying for those who persecute us. In other words we are called to use the secret weapon of kindness to disarm and transform them. In the First Reading, the Lord asks Moses to tell the people: “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” The instruction then goes on to tell the people some practical ways of being holy: avoiding hatred and taking revenge. All that is summed up in the Levitical Law as, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is not just a law but a relationship that is grounded on God’s love for all without exception. As Christians, we cannot pretend to love God and then turn around and hate our neighbor. Paul in the Second Reading gives us the reason: the sacredness of every person. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God which you are, is holy.” That is the biblical fidelity of just relationship to others, rooted in our love of God and the sacredness of the other as a temple of God. This understanding leads us to imitate our God; it leads us to be holy, just as our God is holy; it leads us to be “kind and merciful” just as “The Lord is kind and merciful,” the response to Psalm 103 used in the readings today.
In the Gospel, Jesus, on the basis of Jewish sensibility to the Levitical law, continues his teaching on forgiveness, challenging us further to do the impossible by going beyond law of love and revenge. In the movie The Fiddler on the Roof, Tevya the milkman sums up that Jewish sensibility when he quips, “If everyone lived by 'an eye for an eye' and 'a tooth for a tooth, the world would be blind and toothless.” That is why Jesus teaches that in addition to loving our neighbors, we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In a world so marked by a culture of violence and revenge, Christians are called to be compassionate and forgiving. As followers of Christ, we must never revenge. Instead, Jesus tells us, “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. Let me unpack the passage in order to understand the message of Jesus, using the image of turning the other cheek. At the time of Jesus in Palestine, the law forbad anyone in authority striking anybody with the back of the right hand, or with the left hand. Therefore, if you turned the other cheek, the enemy would first be surprised and stop to think! That technique of Jesus may called “disarming the enemy.” We can also call it “transformative behavior.” I once heard the story of a person who broke into a home on one winter night. The owner, woman who lived alone, woke up on hearing some noise in her living room. On opening her bedroom door, she saw a man standing there and was so frightened. She stood at the door in panic, not knowing what to do next. The man had opened one of the back windows to get in. For a long time, it was tense as they remained in silence. Suddenly, she broke the silence and asked him, what time is it? He responded as he looked at his watch. Only then did the man say how sorry he was to have broken into her home. He was homeless; he was hungry. She then gave him some food and prepared the cough in the living room for him to sleep. With her kindness, she had disarmed the man. The example of turning the other cheek may be seen by the world as weakness or even as taking a risk, but that is what gives us a unique identify when we react to the enemy in a non-violent way rather than violently. That is what is unusual and different from the pagans. Our apparent weakness and cowardice leads to holiness. That is why Jesus concludes the passage with, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So what message do we take home this Sunday? 1) Jesus does not tell us to avoid our brothers and sisters when they wrong us or cheat us, but to remain faithful, kind and merciful. 2) Jesus does not tell us to revenge against those who wrong us, but to be a transforming presence in a violent world by disarming the enemy. 3) Jesus wants us to look at the person who hurts us in the eye-ball and tell them the truth in a non threatening way. It is in doing the impossible that we head towards holiness and perfection.
©2011 John S. Mbinda