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Homily for the seventh Sunday, ordinary time, A

17 Feb 2017, by Rev. Fr. Joel Okojie OSA in Sermons

When atrocity is committed, especially in the Church or against the Church, and the offender seems to be let loose, people often react by saying that God has changed; if it were the God of the Old Testament, he would have struck down the offender with thunder immediately. They feel God has changed; he has become so merciful. But God is the same yesterday, and forever, he did not become compassionate or loving but has been compassionate and loving. We see his caring nature reflected in our first reading this morning, from the book of Leviticus, one of the books of the Old Testament.  He says you must not bear hatred for your brother in your heart. You must openly tell him, your neighbour, of his offense; this way, you will not take a sin upon yourself, you must not exact vengeance, nor must you bear a grudge against the children of the people. You must love your neighbour as yourself.

The God of the Old Testament is not different from the God of the New Testament; in his first letter, John tells us that God is love (1 Jn. 4:16). Jesus did not come into the world as a different God, but the same God took flesh in the New Testament to show his love for us. That is why Jesus says, as we read a week ago, that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. The same teaching continues today in our gospel passage; he wants us to know that he did not come into the world to change things as such but to make us understand them. He says: You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for a tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the cheek, offer him the other as well;… By this statement, Jesus did not really abolish the law of tit for tat (An eye for an eye) but purifies it to go beyond mere limiting vengeance as it was practiced among the Jews to non-retaliation.

An eye for an eye was never a law that encouraged vengeance but instead limited it. Some people call the beginning of mercy a law that restricted vengeance to avoid communal clashes or the escalation of anger. An eye for an eye was a law that prohibited one from overreacting to an injury suffered. One was not permitted to kill because one of his eyes was plucked out, the family members were not allowed to fight the other family because their brother’s eye was plucked out, and an individual was not even permitted to remove an eye for an eye but must let the judge do the needful. Therefore, an eye for an eye was never a bloodthirsty law but a law that promoted peace and reconciliation. That is why Jesus came into the world, to reconcile man to man and God. This reconciliation is not through restricted vengeance but non-violence.

He says; you know how it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you today not just to limit vengeance but to avoid it. This reminds me of the story told by Denis McBride (C.SS.R.) in his book; Seasons of The Word. The story is about an older man who often meditated under a large tree on a riverbank. On this particular day, after his meditation, he notices a large scorpion trapped in the tree’s root under which he meditated. In an attempt for the older man to help free the scorpion, it stung him, yet he continued to try until an onlooker asked the reason for such risk his life to rescue such a wicked creature. The older man answered the onlooker and said, because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, why should I give up on my own nature to save? We should not become wicked because others are wicked; we should not become violent because others are. However, when he said we should turn the other cheek if anyone hits us, he did not mean we should actually turn the other cheek but avoid retaliation.

To turn the other cheek is not a call to be foolish; it is not to be ignorant of our rights and to surrender to evil. When Jesus himself was slapped, he did not turn the other cheek in the ordinary sense of the word, but he did by not retaliating; he returned love for hate. Yet, he asked the man who slapped him, if I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?(Jn. 18:23).

Jesus did not retaliate, he did not strike back, but he demanded to know why he was slapped. We live today in a world where Christians are hunted, persecuted for our faith. We have been challenged to be people of non-violence, to pray for our persecutors. This is difficult to teach, love those who hate us, and pray for those who persecute us. Difficult as it may be, it has become the basis for our relationship with God. Jesus says that in this way, we will become the children of our Father in heaven.

Let us, therefore, turn to the Lord today for the grace to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, especially for the conversion of those cities and nations where Christianity is not tolerated.