Sometimes the homily almost writes itself. Sometimes my wife, Jan, helps.
I found out this week that someone was telling lies about me. It wasn’t a huge surprise because I’ve known this person for a long time and I know he does it to other people. In this particular case it was a pretty big lie It wasn’t a lie of the little and white variety.
My first reaction was to get even. He can’t get away with this! I’ll make him pay. I might even sue. I could, y’know. Defamation of character is a serious thing. But then my lovely bride, who often takes delight in spoiling my fun, said “Have you read this Sunday’s Gospel?” Yes, I had read it.
“Jesus said to His Apostles: ‘You have heard it said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.’”
I really hate it when Jesus and my wife gang up on me. It doesn’t seem fair. But, of course, they’re both right. There’s a great line in the first reading, from the Book of Leviticus, which brings things into perspective. The writer says, “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him.”
Let me repeat that in case you missed it. “Do not incur sin because of him.”
I always worry a little bit about using sports analogies because all of you may not be sports fans. But, I’m going to do it anyway. Even if you’ve never played a sport in your life, I think you’ll get my point. I used to tell my kids, when you’re playing a game and someone trips you or pushes you, or does anything else that’s against the rules, turn around and walk away. Why, because that’s what Jesus said we should do? Yes, that’s part of it. But also because the referee may have missed the original foul, but I can promise you he or she will see it when you turn around and push them back. And you’re the one who’ll end up with the penalty. “Do not incur sin because of him.”
Like Jesus says, anyone can love someone who loves them. It’s no big deal. Every kid loves his or her mother. Every husband loves his wife, or at least he should. Maybe we should say most husbands love their wives. If you’re a married couple and you love each other, congratulations! That’s a wonderful thing. But it’s not that unusual. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s not unusual.
What Jesus is asking us to do today in the Gospel is a lot harder. In fact, for some people it’s impossible. Love your enemy. Return love for hate; good for evil. C’mon Jesus, we’re not made that way. We have the instinct for self-preservation. Staying away from people who might harm us is a good way to stay healthy, even to stay alive. Fight or flight. Kill or be killed. An eye for an eye.
Let me say something about that last one. The expression “an eye for an eye comes from the Jewish Torah, our Old Testament. It didn’t mean that if someone put out your eye you should rush out and retaliate. It’s actually a restriction. If you must avenge yourself for the loss of an eye, you have no right to take more than an eye from the other person. Don’t take two eyes. Don’t kill him. Do no more harm to him than he did to you. It’s a principal that our modern-day legal system seems to have forgotten.
Remember in last week’s Gospel Jesus told us that He didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He said that anyone who breaks even the least of the commandments will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. There’s the retaliation that we humans want so badly. That guy who’s lying about me will suffer the consequences of his actions. It’s for God to handle. If I lash out at him, I’m going to have to suffer the consequences, too.
Am I going to say something to him. You bet I am. Jesus told us how to handle conflict in Matthew’s Gospel. First you talk to the other person. If that doesn’t work, take one or two others along with you. If the person still refuses to cooperate, tell the church. The last resort is to “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Notice that punching the other guy in the nose isn’t mentioned anywhere in either the Old or New Testament.
What I’m saying to you is this. We live in a world where there’s a lot of conflict. Many of our brothers and sisters are selfish and self-absorbed. They’re quick to blame others and very slow to take responsibility for their own actions. When you have to deal with someone like that, it’s easy to fall into the trap of treating them the same way. But what does scripture say? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Even if they’re already done something bad unto you.
Remember that I said this is impossible for some people. I may have been wrong. It may be impossible for all of us. We’re human. I know I struggle with it. In fact, let me make a general statement here. Each of us is different in many ways, but we’re also the same in many ways. I’ve been called as a deacon to deliver God’s message. But when it comes to sin, you and I are exactly the same. As much as I’d like to stand up here and tell you that I practice everything I preach, it would be a lie. Jesus was the last preacher who could say that with a straight face. I struggle with sin every day but hopefully, I can use my own struggles as a tool to help you.
The important thing is that anything is possible with God. He’s the one we have to turn to when we get into potential conflicts. When someone wrongs you, maybe you don’t go to that person first. Because of our flawed human nature, that could turn out badly. First, turn to God. Ask for His help. As His Son once said, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.”
Then confront your enemy, accompanied by the Holy Spirit. Make your case in a calm, peaceful way and you may be surprised by the results. But whether the confrontation turns out well or badly, you won’t have let the other person to cause you to sin.
With God’s help, you can find peace and still be the bigger person.