Kuwait City, 21-23.02.2014.
Homily of the Apostolic Nuncio
His Grace Archbishop Petar Rajič
This single passage of the Gospel presents in a few sentences the essence of our Christian ethic and how we should live our lives, which leads us to closer union with God and on the path of true holiness. Jesus starts off by citing one of the best known laws of the Old Testament that prescribed an equal punishment for anyone who caused harm to another person. This was the law of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. While it may seem barbaric to us today to think in these terms, this was commonly accepted as just retribution for harm done at that time. A person who had a tooth knocked out by another could get so angry with the offender that he would ask not only to knock out just a single tooth in return, but to cut off a hand as well. It was therefore, a law that protected the offender from exaggerated vengeance.
Jesus mentions four specific cases of injury and the way we should respond to them. He cites everyday examples from the experiences of his time. While these specific examples may not occur in our lives, similar things can happen to us today. Instead of being slapped in the face, we might be gravely insulted by someone. Few people wear tunics but we can be easily brought to court when our homes and material belongings are repossessed. People may force us at times to do things we really don’t want to do and it can often happen that we are asked to lend some money to others. Whatever the circumstances be, we can often find ourselves in unpleasant situations where people invade our privacy, insult or hurt us, and it may appear as a real attack against our personal freedoms and dignity.
How should we react? What are we to do in these situations? Again, Jesus provides an answer, but certainly not a simple one. God’s answer to these situations is indeed surprising if not shocking. He asks us to ‘turn the other cheek’, to ‘give up our possessions’, to ‘go the extra mile’ and ‘not turn away from one asking to borrow’. To all these unpleasant acts and even violence, the Lord asks us not to return evil for evil, but to return good for evil. If we are to be true Christians and followers of Christ then we must not seek revenge for any harm done.
Revenge seeking can be considered a natural human reaction, but it certainly does not come from God. Seeking revenge does not solve anything but only adds injury to injury. As Gandhi once said: If everyone adhered to the teaching of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, we would all be blind and toothless. A truly great sign of our Christian maturity appears when we are strong enough to resist evil and the temptation to seek revenge by overcoming them through a sincere desire to do good to everyone, no matter what they do to us.
The person asked to give and go ‘the extra mile’ can do this grudgingly, bitterly, with a desire ‘to get it over with’, but there is another option which is seldom chosen, which our Lord invites us to do, that is, to do it willingly, lovingly, with a sense of service gladly rendered.
The last example Jesus provides is of giving to those who ask to borrow from us. Giving was considered a duty in Jesus’ day. To give to the poor was to give to God; to refuse giving was to refuse God. Yet this does not mean that we should always give indiscriminately. We should be disposed to give when people ask things from us, but also give what is truly necessary, taking into consideration the person’s real needs. As scripture teaches us ‘God loves a generous giver’, for he himself is generous to all of us. We should be the same with others.
Next comes one of the most difficult challenges of our religion, the command of Christ to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Here is where Christianity greatly differs from all the other religions of the world and our greatest challenge and at once our highest calling are found. The real intention of our Lord once again, is not to be overcome by evil, but to be ready to do good to everyone always, no matter how poorly they treat us. This is only possibly for the person who has encountered Christ and who has experienced his love and forgiveness. The person who has the grace of God upon his soul is capable of being God-like in his behaviour towards others. This is what is meant by being ‘perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect’. God is different. What makes him different from us is his holiness. He is distinct from humans and all of creation. We too are called to be different from the practical pagans of the world, to be distinct in our behaviour and our attitudes. Forgiving our enemies, loving them, accepting them, praying for them is a concrete sign of God’s victory over the world. We too, can participate in this victory and realize it in our lives as well. It is never easy. It demands a determined effort of our minds and hearts, yet it brings us that much closer to God.
If we begin to pray for those who do us harm, they then cease to be enemies for us, but poor unfortunates who desperately require the saving grace of God. Christ our Lord won the victory over the hatred of the Scribes and Pharisees who put him to death by accepting that injustice, forgiving them their evil deeds and praying for them. We can also radically change the society we live in and our lives can have more purpose when we do the same.
The Bible teaches that we realize our true humanity only by becoming God-like. The one thing which makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for mankind, no matter how others treat us. We realize our humanity and Christian perfection when we learn to forgive as God forgives, and to love as God loves. We can ask ourselves today, are we big enough, are we Christian enough to always forgive and to love unceasingly the way God does?