18 June 2012

On cheek turning. . .

11th Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Given this morning's gospel reading, we can conclude that Jesus wouldn't have much of a future in modern American politics. Can we imagine a U.S. commander-in-chief who orders our military to turn the other cheek, one who cites scripture to forgive our nation's enemies? It's passages like this one from Matthew that make it more than just difficult for faithful Christians to serve as political leaders of a world power. Jesus' moral attitude towards an enemy, if adopted, would leave our leaders with few attractive solutions to international problems. Even for us as individual Christians, the idea that our enemies are not to be fought against seems nonsensical. It's an assault on common sense. Well, who told you that following Christ was attractive, that following Christ made sense? Jesus tells us to ignore the law of vengeance, “. . .offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” Turning the other cheek is not a surrender to evil; it's Christ's method of fighting evil even as he evangelizes the evil-doer. 

A fifth-century text called, The Apostolic Constitutions, offers us a succinct view of this teaching, quoting Old and New Testament sources, the authors distinguish between evil per se and evil-doers, “'. . .love those who hate you, and you shall have no enemy.' For Chirst says, 'You will not hate any man [. . .]' for they are all the workmanship of God. Avoid not the persons, but the sentiments, of the wicked”(7.2). Those who hate us may see an enemy in us, but we cannot follow Christ's commandment to love and at the same time call anyone an enemy. They may hate us, but even as they do, they do so as children of God. And the whole purpose of the Church, the only reason the Church exists is to give the Father's love a body on earth. If there are children of God who deserve to be hated for their evil, then let them hate themselves as a consequence of evil. Our job is to love them despite their evil, in spite of their evil. We can go even further and say that we are obligated to love them b/c of their evil. Who needs to see and hear and feel the love of their Maker more than those poisoned by hatred, violence, and the love of death? Evil will never conquer evil, so hating those who hate us only strengthens the spirit of hatred. 

The Apostolic Constitutions puts it neatly, “Avoid not the persons, but the sentiments, of the wicked.” Wickedness, as a pervasive spirit of disobedience, can only be defeated soul by soul; that is, a wicked person can be loved into holy obedience but the unholy spirit moves on, lives on to infect over and again. What Jesus is teaching us this morning is a moral strategy for rescuing the world soul by soul. First, we must never hate a person b/c all persons are the “workmanship of God.” Second, evil never defeats evil, thus we cannot use the tools of evil to fight evil. Third, by loving the wicked person and challenging evil with love, we strengthen our own love for God. As difficult as it is to separate the wickedness of a person from the person, it is imperative that we do so. If we struggle with holiness as lovers of Christ, and we do, how much more do the wicked struggle with living while knowing that they are loved despite their wickedness? When they first see and hear a way out of evil, do they also see and hear the love that comes with their rescue? Or do they hear a condemnation disguised as concern? The trap for us is set: condemn the person and be condemned in turn. Love the person, in spite of their evil, and be loved for giving God's mercy a voice. 

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  1. Thanks for the reminder, but it is quite the challenge, isn't it? I certainly fail at this, especially point 3: "by loving the wicked person and challenging evil with love" - especially if you have been hurt by the act of the wicked person; forgiveness, though it may seem impossible, is a good step toward loving, though it can take much strength and courage...and much, much time.

    Now, to the homily - I wasn't grabbed by the opening. My reaction was more of a deep, long sigh and "OK, where's he going with this?" I was quite relieved with where you did take it, but you had me wondering at the beginning, but that could just be me!

    1. Shelly, as usual. . .you're spot on. My excuse: the coffee didn't kick in 'til the second paragraph. :-D

  2. powerful homily