Year A: Seventh Sunday Ordinary Time

Matthew 5, 38-48

“You have heard that it was 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 to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever taken to heart Jesus’ teaching that we are to love our enemies? If so, how have you tried to integrate this teaching into your personal relationships and actions with adversaries?
  2. How you growing in your understanding of love as a choice and action instead of only a feeling? What examples could you share?
  3. When have you been challenged to be a witness to God’s love in a situation where the other person is failing to love you?
  4. In this reading being “perfect” does not mean being “flawless”, but to become more “whole-complete, and perfect in your Love” How do you try to grow in holiness? What more could you do?

Biblical Context

Matthew 5: 38-48
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Today’s Gospel brings us the sayings of Jesus that are probably most vulnerable to misinterpretation and disastrous results. How many times have abused people been told to turn the other cheek? How many times have ideas from this selection been used to stop protests against injustice? How has the fatalism of the “resistance is futile” attitude become a mortal danger not just to humanity, but to the earth itself?

To grapple with this section of the Sermon on the Mount we need to understand what Jesus taught about the relationships that characterize the kingdom of heaven. Preceding today’s reading, Jesus talked about in-house affairs, relationship with a brother, a husband or colleagues. Now he describes how the blessed participants in the kingdom of heaven can deal with their adversaries.

As before, Jesus introduced his teaching with “You have heard … ” and then quoted an ancient guideline designed to break cycles of increasing violence. “An eye for an eye” assured that whether the person offended was a king or peasant, no more could be exacted from the offender than the loss he had caused. That was strict justice. But, as Gandhi pointed out, while that might have stopped violence from snowballing, it also created a lot of blindness. Jesus wanted his followers to see things differently.

Jesus wanted his followers to circumvent the spirals of hostility in the world, thus he taught them how to respond in a way that decreases antagonism and increases humanity. The “lex talionis,” an eye for an eye, recognized objective equality in terms of damage. The alternative Jesus proposed personalized the interaction. In his examples the injured party who refuses to be treated as an inferior human being becomes the greater in terms of humanity, simultaneously inviting the other into a more human milieu. That sounds a bit like “The last shall be first,” and it also presages how Jesus would respond to his own arrest, saying that those who live by the sword will die by it.

Jesus showed the powerlessness of brutality by proving that life prevails: he rose from the dead and the cross became a symbol of life. But as Paul admits, his message seems foolish to the world.

Nevertheless, from the time of Moses on, God has called a people to be holy, which ultimately means to be caught up in and by love. Jesus’ message in today’s Gospel is that we were made for more than pettiness and futility, and that no power on earth can demean us to the point of erasing our humanity. Jesus’ teachings about human relations described the interactions that characterize the kingdom of heaven. As in the earlier part of this discourse, these are wisdom sayings, not juridical pronouncements. They present a design for living with specific examples that can be applied to other situations as well. What underlies the whole is a profoundly reverential approach to relationships, to our dealings with those with whom we share community or family and those with whom we deal in day to day situations. The real subject of Jesus’ teaching here is about the heart we put into every human interaction.

God Calls Us to Holiness

Karen Seaborn

On June 17, 2015, nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina were shot to death while participating in a Bible study in the basement of their church. The shooter, a 21 year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist, had wandered into the room that evening. Can you picture it? Nine black church-goers in the midst of prayer and study, look up to see a young white man in jeans and a sweatshirt. Did they politely ask him to leave? Did they threaten to call the police if he did not leave? No. They invited him to join them. For a time, he did just that, he participated in their Bible study. And just as they were ending their session, heads bowed in prayer, he pulled a gun out of his fanny pack and one by one he shot them. Can you imagine the anguish the families of those nine people experienced? I cannot. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to lose a loved one so suddenly and so violently. And that is what makes the next part of this story so stunning. Only three days later, when invited to share a statement at the shooter’s bond hearing, several of the family members turned to the shooter and said “I forgive you”.

In today’s first reading, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to be holy as the Lord their God is holy, to bear no hatred in their hearts, to take no revenge, to cherish no grudge and to love their neighbor as themselves. And who is their neighbor? Jesus responds to this question in chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel with the parable of the good Samaritan: your neighbor is the one who is not like you. In today’s Gospel as Jesus brings his Sermon on the Mount to a close, he seems to save the most challenging part for last: Love not only those who are like you or even those who are not like you. Go one step further. Love your enemy. In this way, you will be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Few of us will be called to love in such horrific circumstances as those who lost loved ones in Charleston that night. But all of us have people around us who are difficult to love. It might be that co-worker who loudly snaps her gum in the next cubicle, or perhaps the committee chair who never listens to our ideas. It might be the protesters blocking traffic, or a family member with whom we haven’t spoken in many months. The wisdom of the world might call us to be righteous in our particular situation, but as Paul tells us in the second reading, the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God. God calls us to holiness.

The man who shot those nine people was certainly not a friend. He was indeed their enemy. Yet, even in the midst of unimaginable pain, their family members knew that this man was still their neighbor. From somewhere deep inside themselves they knew that they were called to love that neighbor, to love their enemy. Did their forgiveness mean they no longer hurt? No. I am quite sure the family members of those victims continued to ache deeply. Yet their decision to love and forgive not only stopped a potential cycle of violence and vengeance, it made it possible for good to follow. Only twenty-three days after the shooting, the Confederate flag — long believed to be a racist symbol — was removed from South Carolina’s statehouse.

These family members reflect the spirit of today’s readings. They show us how to be holy and perfect as the Lord our God is holy and perfect. It cannot have been easy for them. But they show us that with God’s grace, it can indeed be done.

Karen Seaborn is currently a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching student at Aquinas Institute of Theology, where she also earned her Master of Divinity degree. She is serving as pastoral associate for adult faith formation at her parish in Waterloo, Illinois. She is married with four children and four grandchildren