Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
We might be inclined to duck our heads during the reading of today’s Gospel. Our track record (personally, politically, and ecclesially) is not too good in fulfilling its demands. We opt for more pragmatic approaches to life’s conflicts.
Maybe this is an optional requirement, an elective and not a required course. It might apply in controlled or restricted environments (where there is really not a whole lot to lose), for those with the luxury to be concerned about being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Or maybe this is a subtle form of one-up-manship where you take the high moral ground. A technique to take the wind out of another’s sails. Hah, I am better than you. Exegetes point out that in Jesus’ day, turning one’s other cheek, going to court over a tunic, and going more than one mile were all clever ways to embarrass and expose the meanness of anyone taking advantage of the system.
Often in the instances of conflict, it is less the material of the offense than the injury done to one’s honor or dignity. That is why the response of revenge, resentment, and holding a grudge forever can be so disproportionate to the cause. We weren’t even thinking of our honor or dignity until it is offended or assaulted. When someone flies balloons over our air space or cuts us off in traffic, we are not suffering great material loss. But we have been cut to the bone. We are offended. “It was inappropriate” is sometimes the best way to described the affront. Not proprius, not done here, improper, out of order. I cannot absorb or accept this, it violates what is ours, what belongs to us. It threatens the whole system of what defines and supports us and which we support in turn. Inappropriate. You have transgressed limits. Our limits and the laws which express and defend them have been violated. They are in place to protect and articulate the intangible sacred which sustains us at the center of our lives.
The Gospel challenges us to extend the boundaries of the sacred and holy in our lives. Its call for a horizontal expansion rests on a vertical or transcendent deepening. The world, life and death, the present and the future are all your servants, but you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your heavenly Father. Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. We are born into a new creation which brings to life our dignity and honor. What is the source and ground of this dignity and honor? Hardly the achievements we have been able to amass. Their very fragility is the reason we are hypersensitive to their being even questioned. Our dignity and honor are not a birthright or privilege which spares us engagement with the problems of the world. It is the very holiness, the gifting-ness of God which makes them come alive. Lumen Gentium of Vatican II has described the universal call to holiness as the gift of the spirit sent to all people to move them interiorly to love God with their whole heart and strength and to love their neighbor WITH THE VERY LOVE OF GOD. The impartial, forgiving, merciful, unconditional love of God is what has bestowed dignity and honor on us and which makes us instruments of this same love.
Surely, this will make us vulnerable and disadvantaged and put at the mercy of others. But this is the shape and form of love, to find life in the other. Herbert McCabe has said that to be truly alive one must love, must break through walls of self-enclosure. But anyone who loves will be killed. We are gathered here to celebrate and share in that one event of Jesus who came to manifest love and was killed because that love transgressed the boundaries of what was appropriate. Our honor and dignity are the fruit of that love which suffered, forgave, and prayed for his enemies. It is a love that brings to life the dignity even of those who misuse power against us.
Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., understood this Gospel. To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we shall continue to love you…. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process.” (“Loving Your Enemies” in Strength to Love.)