Open our ears, O Lord, to hear your word and know your voice. Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills that we may serve you now and always. Amen.
Anyone perusing the stories of the Old Testament for the first time will quickly come to realise that the history of Israel is full of stories of violence, revenge and bitter rivalries. In numerous places Israel is allowed to take revenge for the wrongs done to them and in today’s Gospel reading Jesus highlights this fact twice by saying:
“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy”
To the Jew of Christ’s time these would have been familiar ideas, and principles that their lives have been lived by. In hearing Christ use these words those listening would have likely been awaiting to hear a discourse of the righteous judgements of Israel and their right to punish those who have wronged them and to resists the evils perpetrated against them. However, in His typical style the message that the Saviour delivers to the gathered crowd is absolutely counter to their cultural experience.
In the words of Jesus those of us who are called to follow His path are called not to lives of vengeance and righteous retribution but to love, and this love extends to all of humanity, friend and enemy alike. This life of love is not only transformative for the world and people around us but is an essential part of the path that will lead to our salvation.
I’m sure that each and every one of us has been faced with a situation where we’ve been treated badly or someone’s done something to hurt us. If we allow our minds to wonder through these events and are honest with ourselves I’m sure we’d find that our first thoughts are often of how to even the score, how to get our own back and level the playing field. It seems that there’s nothing more natural than for a person to want what’s often seen as natural justice to occur, for the thief to have to return their spoils and have their freedom stolen through imprisonment, for the violent individual to be the recipient of violence or for the murderer to receive the punishment of State sanctioned execution.
I‘ve even heard Christians justify their convictions in these matters by quoting the very Old Testament scriptures that Jesus did in today’s Gospel. It seems that when we’re faced with hurt that the most natural human state is revenge, however, Jesus clearly points out to us that this seeking of revenge and “natural justice” is far from natural at all and is in fact part of our fallen condition.
In fact the Saviour points out to us that the most natural and perfect state for the hurt and the wronged is the exact opposite of revenge and hate; it’s love! In the reading this morning Jesus tells us directly that when we encounter evil we’re not to resist it, that we should welcome it and “turn the other cheek” to take a double portion of the evil being delivered.
It seems so counter intuitive to me to do this, why on earth would we ever let someone strike us a second time? Why would we let a thief not only take the expensive watch from our wrist but, unprompted, take the wallet from our pocket and give that to them to? It’s because of that higher law that I spoke of last week, the law of love. I have heard our Eastern Brethren share a story of the Desert Fathers to illustrate this point.
One day a Desert Father is away from his shack wandering the deserted paths, praying and contemplating. When he returns home he finds that there are strangers there stripping his dwelling of what few possessions he has. The Father is perturbed and concerned and falls to his knees in the corner of his small dwelling and instead of praying for deliverance, he begins to pray for the thieves, their safety and their wellbeing. At this the thieves are confused and worried, so they grab the last of the things from the dwelling and get out of there.
The story doesn’t end here though, on rising from his prayers for the thieves the Father notices that his walking stick has been left behind. He moves over to it, picks it up, and sets off out the door. Instead of going to find one of his fellow hermits and lament his position he sets off in pursuit of the thieves. It takes the Desert Father many days to catch up to the thieves and when he does, instead of chastising them he hands them his walking stick and tells them they forgot it.
The thieves are perplexed by this ragged old man of the desert and his actions but they are touched by his love. Instead of fighting them off, he prayed for them, instead of chasing them and demanding the return of his possessions the Desert Father gives them his last earthly good. The Desert Father has given himself over totally to loving humanity as God does and through this action these thieves are converted to Christ.
And so it can be with each and every one of us; loving our neighbours and our enemies isn’t about flowery, abstract feelings, it’s about real life decisions and actions. It’s about deciding to look on our fellow human beings through the eyes of God. It’s about taking the love that God has given us and letting it well up and overflow through us onto fallen humanity.
If each and every one of us committed to freeing ourselves from hate, sadness and anger can you imagine the impact that we could have on the world? How many of those that come in contact with us would be touched by the transformative love of God if we chose to reject evil and its outward manifestations and impacts? Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this is an easy path, or one that I have even begun to master, but it’s the path that each and every one of us, as followers of Christ are called to tread.
Each one of us is called to be a vessel of the perfect Love of God; one of Jesus’ greatest wishes was that we could all be perfect as God is perfect. The start of the path that leads to this perfection is the rejection of the resistance of evil that Christ speaks about today. If we can begin now to empty ourselves of hate, of sadness and of our anger we can begin to be filled with the perfect love of God and be ready to unite ourselves with God and become one with him in the perfect bonds of salvation!
It’s my prayer this day, for each and every one of us, that we can recognise within ourselves those times when we are giving ourselves over to hate and anger and begin to deliver ourselves from these and create a world of love paving the way for not only our own salvation but for the salvation of the whole world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.