THE SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – February 20, 2011

Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18

1 Corinthians 3:16-23

Matthew 5:38-48

If you think it is easy to be a Christian and want to continue thinking in that vein, then perhaps you should not read any farther here.  And stop your ears when the Gospel is proclaimed this Sunday.  If the majority of us do not wonder if anyone can live this new law, then we are hearing a filtered version of the text.  Living the Christian Way is not for the faint of heart.  Look at the Lord during his passion and you will see what it means to live the letter of this Law.

Several years ago I visited a young man in hospital.  He was recently made paraplegic as a result of an accident caused by a speedster running a red light and broad siding the car in which my friend was riding.  A senior in high school, he was a gifted athlete who had received an athletic scholarship to a prestigious university.  Obviously he would never play sports again.  The scholarship would be rescinded.  His dreams of attending the school would never be realized.

We sat and talked and I expected to have to search for words to comfort him in his terrible ordeal.  I was stunned as he spoke of the horror of the accident and how suddenly his life was altered.  There were no tears forming in his eyes as he spoke.  He reached out and put his hand on mine and told me how sorry he felt for the poor guy who caused the accident.  I don’t know if I could live with that on my conscience if the situation were reversed, he said.  Where was the bitterness I expected to find?  Where was the anger?  He was responding with love.  I remember thinking that I could not imagine myself accepting such a disaster in my own life without wanting to cry out for vengeance, an eye for an eye. From where did he get his strength and courage?

Remember we are on the Mountain listening to the new Moses as he gives us the new Law that will govern those who will be his disciples.  The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus speaking about the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law.  Fulfillment goes much farther than mere obedience to the letter of the Law.  For the Jewish people the Law was the sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.  Obeying God’s Law meant that they had to live a certain way, do certain things, and avoid certain others.  Their way of life would be an eloquent sign to all the Gentiles of the intimate relationship between God and God’s chosen people.  If we live the New Law our lives will speak eloquently to the world of what it means to live in Christ and have Christ live us.

It can be argued that much of the Mosaic Law is meant to direct life in the community, how the Jewish people are expected to treat each other.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself. With Jesus, the Law becomes universal in application and goes beyond the community of believers.  Certainly this is how Christians should treat each other.  But Christians should react to and treat all people this way – even their enemies.

I don’t know if those plastic bracelets with WWJD embossed on them are still popular.  What would Jesus do? The question is not a bad one to ask in difficult situations.  We don’t have to wonder what Jesus would do in the most trying times in his life.  All we have to do is look at him during his passion.  He was silent before his accusers.  He was struck on the face and scourged and offered no resistance.  He bore the cross and was crucified.  During none of those moments did he curse the ones who abused him.  He turned the other cheek, offered his beard to those who would pluck it and his back to those who would beat him.  He was like a lamb led to the slaughter.  Imitating Jesus in similar moments is the ultimate test for living the New Way.  That is why martyrs were the first to be called saints.

There is no easy way to hear this text.  Jesus does tell us to offer no resistance to one who is evil.  When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. We are supposed to yield to, even go beyond unreasonable demands.  In other words, it seems there is to be something intrinsically vulnerable about Christians.  The 23 Ugandan Martyrs stand out as prime examples here.  Try to imagine being tied to a stake, wrapped in reeds, and enduring having those reeds lit at your feet.  Each of the young Ugandans was slowly burned to death in this excruciatingly painful manner.  Not one of them cried out or cursed those executing him.  Instead, to a person, they sang hymns and rejoiced that they were on their way to see Jesus.  How many Ugandans in later years sought Baptism because of the martyrs’ example?  To this day millions gather every year at the site of their martyrdoms to celebrate their feast.

Jesus says that his disciples, that we are to go beyond loving our neighbors to loving our enemies.  Love, as Jesus commands it, becomes the all-consuming demand of the new Law.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. As you hear these words, it is one thing to think about their application in the abstract.  Think about someone who has done violence to you, or wronged you, and then think about loving that person.  The young man at the start of this piece thought about the one who caused the accident with compassion.  By the way, they met not long after our visit.  They reconciled and remain fast-friends to this day.  How many of Bernie Madoff’s clients, do you suppose love him today?  It wouldn’t make sense, would it?  Precisely!

The Law by which Jesus commands us to live makes demands upon us regarding the just and the unjust, regarding our neighbors and aliens alike, and regarding our friends and our enemies, and the rich and the poor.  Remember that Jesus is the full revelation of the Father.  What we are supposed to recognize in this commandment is the universality of God’s love.  God loves the Chosen People.  God loves the Gentiles.  God loves believers and unbelievers.  God loves saints and sinners.  God loves all people regardless of race, color, creed, ethnicity, gender, or any other classification by which people are categorized.  So does Jesus.  And so must his disciples, that is, so must we.

The message that must continuously be proclaimed by the Church is one of universal love and redemption.  No one is beyond the pale of God’s love.  At another time, Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will refresh you.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. We are supposed to share the load of the burdened the way a team of oxen does.  Why are we tempted to think that that applies only to ourselves, only to those on the inner circle?  There is nothing demanding about loving only the lovable.  Even the pagans do that. That is not imitative of God’s love.  As disciples we are to love the unlovable and pray for those who would do harm to us because God loves them.

I believe there is only one way we can do this and that is by yielding to the transforming power of the Eucharist.  Remember that it is not solely Christ who is present in the Eucharist, but so is the whole Church drawn into unity with Christ.  We must be vulnerable to the implications of receiving Eucharist.  We call it Holy Communion.  When we receive we enter into Common Union with Christ and all others who are really or potentially, part of his Body.  I have to love all those with whom I so intimately unite in Christ or I cannot be part of the union.  It doesn’t mean that I have perfected that art because I receive.  But it does mean that each time I receive I am willing to die more and more to myself and to my limitations so that Christ might become more and more in me.  Then I believe that I will be able to do all things in him who strengthens me, even love my enemies.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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