Homily for Mass – Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
Sunday 7:30am & 5:00pm
23 February 2014
Mary Immaculate Church, Annerley
Readings: Lev 19:1-2, 17-18; Ps 102; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48
The Old Testament law that Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel sounds brutal to our ears: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But in fact that law was actually an attempt to limit retribution. It was intended to curtail the impulse for unlimited vengeance and unnecessary bloodshed (1). If someone stole a camel, then all they would lose is a camel in return to make everything even (2). Just like over the last few Sundays we’ve been seeing Jesus give quite demanding teachings, we see the same today.
It’s not enough just to curtail the desire for revenge by exacting an in-kind retribution (an eye for an eye), but Jesus makes his demand on his disciples even more challenging: no retribution at all! The standard Jesus sets involves turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, even loving one’s enemies.
Today’s Gospel pokes at a reality that is lurking never very far away in our lives. How easily our hearts can become full of petty jealousies, hatred and spite. “A hurting word from a friend immediately sparks off thoughts of revenge and retaliation. We often brood over insignificant insults, … we harbour grudges. Jesus rejects such behaviour and insists on repaying evil with good. He warns against giving in to bitterness and being obsessed with feelings of vindictiveness.” These attitudes are not in line with his teachings … we are, rather, to have a heart of forgiveness and mercy (3).
When we speak of this, one challenge that arises is this: isn’t this just encouraging a sort of passiveness, encouraging Christians not to do anything to curtail injustices? Is this not just a form of enabling bad behaviour? But this is not what Jesus intended at all. He isn’t saying: just cop whatever you’re given and do nothing. Jesus’ words, in fact, are full of directions of what we must be doing: we must LOVE our enemies, PRAY for those who persecute us, GIVE greetings to those who are not our friends, and to BE perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
This is not some form of Christian passivity – this is hard work; active work, things Jesus is telling us to DO every day. It’s an active form of RESISTANCE … of consciously working not to stoop to the level of other people’s bad behaviour, but to operate by a higher standard. The ultimate aim is that we will conquer the hearts of our enemies – they will be vanquished because they will have ceased to be enemies (1).
As I reflected on this text it was the story of St Maria Goretti that came to my mind. Maria was not even twelve years old when she was attacked by an older boy because she would not give in to him. The injuries she sustained were fatal, but on her death-bed she expressed forgiveness for her attacker. That young man was sentenced to 30 years in jail. For the first three years he was unrepentant of his crime. But this changed after the local bishop went to visit him in prison. He wrote to the bishop to thank him for his visit, and wrote about a dream he had in which Maria gave him flowers which burned as soon as he held them.
When he got out of prison, he went to visit Maria’s mother, Assunta, who was still alive – and he begged her forgiveness. She did forgive him – saying that if Maria had forgiven him while she was still alive, she couldn’t do otherwise. It’s reported that they went to Mass the next morning, and received Holy Communion side by side. Both of them were also present at Maria Goretti’s canonization in 1950. He became a Capuchin brother, living in a monastery and dying at the age of 87.
It’s an extraordinary story of forgiveness and repentance. And its interesting that the forgiveness came first … the repentance took longer. St Maria Goretti forgave her attacker as she knew Our Lord would want her to do … and it was that love that she showed that eventually unlocked her attacker’s heart. Jesus wants us to conquer our enemies by love. It’s love that opens peoples hearts to the grace of God.
This is surely what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. God loves us first … even though we are sinners; even though we act as though we despise his laws, we break his commandments, we don’t do what he’s asked us to … and yet he loves us, with a love that never goes away. And once we catch a glimpse of that love, that changes our hearts … we repent, and we want to follow His ways.
Let’s come to that love this morning … the love that led Jesus to offer himself on the altar of the Cross, dying to set us free. As we encounter that love and receive that love, may it help us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect … to actively love our enemies and to pray for those who treat us badly.
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(1) 365 Days with the Lord: Liturgical Biblical Diary 2014.
(2) The Word Among Us, February 2014.
(3) God’s Word 2014: Daily Reflections.