Theme: We naturally resent those who do us wrong. But nurtured hatred can come between us and our loving God, who wants us to be more forgiving.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt youself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and that temple you are.
Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile."
So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apol'los or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's.
Jesus said to his disciples, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
In the teaching of many preachers some time ago, God was presented as an ever-vigilant watcher, with a warning finger in front of it, and written underneath, the words, "God sees you." It may well have been an attempt to express visually the feelings of job in the Old Testament, where he became obsessed and frightened by the thought that God was scrutinising his every action. "Will you never take your eyes off me, long enough for me to swallow my spittle?," he cried (Job 7:19). Or it could have been an illustration of a saying in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, "Their ways are always under his eye, they cannot be hidden from his sight" (17:15).
But such a concept of God, instead of drawing souls to him, can also have disastrous results on the mind and heart, as for example in the case of the French writer and philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He stated in his autobiography that, in the middle of an innocent boyhood prank, he suddenly realised that, in his own words, "God sees me." And this so frightened him that, by deliberate choice, he cursed God, and became a bitter atheist for the rest of his life. In his writings, for part of which he refused the offer of a Nobel Prize, he painted a picture of man as a responsible but lonely human being adrift in a meaningless world, with a terrifying freedom to choose, that brought with it anguish or enduring anxiety. But God, from whom we come and to whom we go, instead of fixing a cold and calculating eye on us, bestows life and joy and, if we but have faith in him, a sense of being cared for - cared for, not because of what we do, or indeed the choices we make, but for our own sakes. God, we might say, even turn a blid eye on our faults, as shown by the Parable of the Prodigal Son; he is indiscriminating in his compassion; he is a Father who is prodigal in his forgiveness.
God is not an angry policeman or judge, threatening our lives. Rather God wants us to live life to the full, to grow, to come to maturity and fulfilment. To err is human; to forgive divine, and this readiness to forgive is the unique attribute of our God. "Father forgive them," Christ prayed for his executioners, "because they know not what they do." As the gospel points out, God treats all alike. He causes the sun to rise on the bad people as well as the good, his rain - a blessing in parched Israel - to fall on honest and dishonest alike.
And in our attitudes too, Christ tells us, there must be no spite, no hatred, no vindictiveness towards others. "Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect," he tells us. "Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy," the first reading says. Strange as it may seem, the principle of "an eye for an eye" was not a barbaric practice, but rather a call to the people of the Old Testament to exercise restraint towards those from whom they differed. It became known as the Law of Recompense or Retaliation (Lex talionis). But if we read the story of the creation in the book of Genesis, we see how quickly the disorders in society, caused by sin, spread after the fall of our first parents, recounted in chapter three. Chapter four describes for us the first murder; and the spirit of hatred and feuding between families and clans that spread amongst mankind is exemplified by the reference to Lamech saying in the same chapter: "I killed a man for wounding me, a boy for striking me. Sevenfold vengeance is taken for Cain,ut seventy-seven-fold for Lamech."
The pursuit of such vendettas - which by the way we have witnessed in our own times also in the wiping out of whole villages, even cities, by way of retaliation - brings about the virtual collapse of society. We have seen it in our own country, in the sectarian violence promoted in the name of religion, in the collapse of the fabric of community life within certain areas of our cities, with the resulting unhappiness and longing to get away from it all on the part of many. It is striking how quickly even the first Christian communities became divided and partisan, some taking Paul's side, others that of Apollos, and so on, as described in the second reading from the Letter to the Corinthians. But tensions, it can be said also, seem to give more purpose to a community. They oblige people to spend more time in prayer, in dialogue, in working at the restoration of unity. "As the Lord has forgiven you," St Paul warns, "so you also must forgive. Put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And le the peace of Christ rule in your hearts" (Col 3:12-18).
Other thinkers had said: "do not do to others what you would not have them do to you." That is perhaps the basic law of manners and politeness. Jesus, characteristically, goes beyond this: Do to others.. The Christian ethic is positive. It goes beyond "Thou shalt not.." to "Do..." It is activist. There is the story of the man who appeared at the gate of heaven asking to be let in. St Peter asked him why he thought he should be let in. The man answered: "my hands are clean." "Yes," answered Peter, "but they are empty!'
The Christian ethic always asks us to grow. Many people are puzzled and confused because Christian moral guides are sometimes slow to lay down a clear minimum which people must achieve to be justified. But Jesus asks for more. "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?" What is so special about that? Jesus asks for extra. We told his disciples: "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Yet with those who tried and failed he was full of sympathy and compassion. He will never say "enough," but he will not reject anyone who has failed and comes back to him.
Some people see life in terms of survival of the fittest, or 'dog-eat-dog'. David had his chance to kill his enemy before his enemy killed him, as Saul fully intended to do. But he held back and he would not take Saul's life. The temptation to violence is an easy one. The world is full of wars and violent confrontations. We yield too readily to our instincts of aggression, whether it is the great aggression where nation confronts nation in a balance of terror, or violent confrontations between groups of citizens, or violence in the home. Education in peaceful means of solving interpersonal and intercommunal difficulties is one of the greatest needs of our age. The way is open to Christians to start to learn more about non-violent means of solving conflicts and becomes peacemakers.
Mercy is God's primary characteristic - even of the "Old Testament God" whom many commentators, following some Christian heretics, prefer to portray as harsh and cruel. Our psalm, which comes from the Old Testament emphasises that God is not the seeker of vengeance that many people imagine him to be. He is not waiting and anxious to punish each and every fault, but he is concerned only to remove our sins and to make us one with him.
God's merciful goodness towards us is shown most clearly in the life and death of Jesus Christ. This Jesus wants to join us with him for an eternity of fulfilment and happiness. God's compassion for sinful and unhappy humanity is the model of our compassion. St Matthew had said: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Ch. 5:48.) St John said: "God is love" (1 John 4:7.) St Luke's report of Jesus' words is: "Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate."
The old cowboy films of my boyhood had a recurrent scene that always intrigued me. In the bar-room shoot-out, the crooked gangster, beaten to the draw, tottered to the floor, riddled with bullets. As the gunman turned away, the dying gangster weakly raised his gun and fired a last shot into the gunman's back. Then he slumped back and died, almost contentedly, a wisp of smoke spiralling from his gun and a flicker of a smile on his face. Sweet revenge!
I accepted all this then as part of the Western fantasy-world. I know better now. Life is full of people with chips on their shoulders, real or imaginary, all waiting for a chance to get their own back. They carry their scars through life, refusing to let them heal until they have settled accounts. Feuds, vendettas and - grudges are nurtured in parishes, in streets and even in families.
Some are even passed down from one generation to the next. A colossal amount of energy and ingenuity is expended on settling old scores and exacting vengeance. The lex talionis - "an eye for eye and tooth for tooth" - is alive and well and thriving in every human environment, but nowhere more so than in the in dustrial world. Management singles out troublemakers for redundancy. Blacklists are kept. Workers know where and when to call a lightening strike and who in management is to be sacri ficed. Even in the corridors of power, in the velvet setting of plush boardrooms, the knives are long and sharp and are slipped between pin-striped shoulder-blades almost with a smile.
Honour is always at stake when the God of vengeance is invoked. "Getting one's own back" is raised to the level of a virtue in our world. The injured party could never hold its head up again if the injury is not repaid. Loved ones too are invoked. We owe it to our wives and children. "Getting even" becomes an obsession. "I'll fix him if it is the last thing I do." Shades of the prostrate crook and his smoking six-shooter! The world has nothing but contempt for the one who "turns the other cheek." He is a weakling. "He took it lying down." It goads us on to vengeance. "Don't let them get away with it."
The Bible tells us otherwise. The Lord said to Moses: "You must not take revenge, nor bear a grudge against the children of your people." What is refreshing about today's gospel is that it recognises us as we are, full of pettiness, exacting hurt for hurt, trading blow for blow. We all have enemies who persecute us. Letting them get away with it is not easy. Loving them is a call to perfection, to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.