the seventh Sunday of ordinary time

Standard

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, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well. Mt 5:38-48

This brief little saying can take on different meanings at different times. True, its truth is timeless and unwavering. Its circumstances or what the statement is gauged against continually change. Some days the eye and tooth are personal. Some days it is an individual that punches you. Some days it a street fight, and others it is a world war. Eye for eye can be a personal choice or national policy. What does that statement mean, and what is it intended to mean?

To many it is a statement of vengeance or revenge. If someone causes you pain, by right you have the right to retaliate. The statement though is not simply a justification to let fists fly. It is a statement of measure. If someone causes harm eye for eye limits the extent of retribution. In a legal sense the punishment must fit the crime. Eye for eye sets a limit on when an issue is resolved. It brings a conflict to a conclusion. But does it really solve the problem?

As I said this passage is interpreted differently at different times. Today I see the passage in the news and I read of it being applied not far from where the statement was written. In some parts of the world eye for eye is law. This law is dispensed exactly as written. Let’s offer an illustration. There was a woman who was blinded because someone tossed acid in her face. The court sentence was for the perpetrator to be blinded by acid dripped into his eye. An eye for an eye. That’s a true story. For the thief the amputation of a hand. The law is distributed without tolerance, it is prescribed exactly as written. Order is maintained by fear of retribution, but is anything resolved?

To Jesus, the answer is no. For a sin, a sin is returned. To Jesus evil is not met with evil. Evil can be confronted and defeated with truth. Sin is defeated with grace. Turn the other cheek. Fight evil with good. Injustice can be confronted with forgiveness. Ignorance with instruction. Brutality with kindness. To turn the other cheek, what does that mean? On one level it can be taken literally, it can simply mean turn the other way. It can imply a type of tolerance. In another way turn the other cheek can imply two sides, to look at both the good and bad. It can be to prosecute and also defend, to look at both sides and all angles. That is to approach an injustice with wisdom and understanding, not quickly or blindly.

With Christ is the radical philosophy that good always triumphs over evil. Always, always, and always. It is not the fastest way to resolve an issue, and the Jesus approach does not always serve as a deterrent. Jesus does not offer retribution, but instead solution. What good is accomplished by blinding the ignorant fool, especially if the punishment is not accompanied by education?

A blind fool is still a fool and a fool can always recruit another. For that woman that was blinded by a fool who behaved with cruel indifference in a society that often condones such actions. Certainly by treating him with the same, eye for eye, his faults are visible to others; but who else has benefitted? He offered injustice for injustice, just as the court has dealt out to him. That crime occurred in a land known for honor killings. It occurred in a land known for social injustice and wide spread poverty. It occurred in a land known for intolerance, a land known for dictatorship. It is a place where human rights violations are committed without the retaliation of government and often endorsed as tradition. Eye for eye occurs where one life is valued much higher than another. Places where fear rules and there us a fear of education, places where ignorance is perpetrated. It is where eye for eye is the law if the land, and that law is perpetrated through ignorance. It is a law that serves man and not God. When Jesus says turn the other cheek, people should listen. In that gesture is a defining characteristic of the Christian. It sets Christians apart. Yes, there is a bit of political commentary here.

The truth is that the law was intended to curb injustice and not perpetrate it. It is a law that was intended to allow for a better solution but ignorance and indifference, and hatred never let that law get beyond its eight words. There is the reason for Jesus’s speech, it helps  us to expand ones vocabulary. Jesus allows compassion, and truth, and charity, and forgiveness, and empathy, and resolution, and justice, and tolerance, and education, and love enter into both the conversation and the solution. To Jesus it is more important to give sight to the blind, rather than further disable someone who cannot see clearly. It is more important to cure the cripple than to hobble them further, to restore the withered hand and not simply remove it. All of these come from examples of Christs healing and they all challenge an eye for an eye. Taking an eye for an eye is easy, any fool can do it. Restoring sight to the blind, that’s another story.. .

Elijah’s victory dance

Standard

Elijah is not politically correct, he does not shake hands with the evil king. There is no sportsmanship, no gentleman’s handshake after the contest of the Gods. Elijah makes certain Ahab knows who the true God is, and he makes sure he knows which God is responsible for the rain. No sympathy is shown. Ahab’s defeat is humiliating, and that is the first step in being humble. Jesus mentions the humble, but that is hundreds of years later. The point is that Elijah wanted all involved to know that worshiping a false God is an abomination. This is weighty matter. It is a criminal offense, and leads to spiritual and mortal death. Elijah has the prophets of Baal executed. Serious stuff, so different from our world of relativism. Our grayed down politically correct fantasy. Enough.1 Kgs 18:41-46

Jesus in his lecture to the disciples makes sure his disciples understand his is not a liberal gospel. His is not a legal interpretation of law, but a moral one. While eloquent speech might convince an elder of a guilty person’s innocence, the divine does not barter. It is not what I can do, and what can I get away with. It is what is right. What is correct. What is righteous? What one can get away with in a courtroom, one cannot get away with in heaven.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that
of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.

Why, I wonder, did the Christ give this talk? Mt 5:20-26 I think it might be due to His shift in authority in the enforcement of The Law. God’s law then, unlike now, was enforced in court. With Jesus though obedience to The Law was between man and God. Think of the criminal offenses He committed. Eating without ritual washing, Gleaning wheat on the Sabbath and healing on the same day. Criminal offenses of the day, but not in the eyes of the divine. Certainly what he taught the disciples regarding the law had shifted from the traditional practices of the day, and with that there was the danger of misinterpretation. There was the danger the disciples could turn into careless liberals doing whatever they please. Today’s gospel reminds them their responsibility increased rather than diminished.

I used the term “liberals” which has a political connotation. With the letter of the law loosing importance over its spirit, the disciples could have let liberal interpretations drift into ignorance and abandonment. It would certainly have been easy for them to adopt a devil-may-care attitude, but certainly Jesus knew to be on the lookout. To today’s political enthusiast one might see this as a warning against liberalism as we know it, but things are about to make a turn. Regarding The Law, Jesus did not turn against the liberal, His argument was against the conservative. It was against the traditionalist, and even the fundamentalist. Both Liberalism and Conservatism are a far cry from Righteousness. Come Holy Spirit.

A victory for Elijah

Standard

Elijah enters into his final confrontation with Ahab, they and the people ascend Mount Carmel for the battle of the God’s. It’s a showdown between Ahab and Elijah, Baal and the one true God. A contest is announced and all agree to the rules. Two altars are to be erected, and two calves slaughtered, wood placed atop the altar and sacrifice atop the wood. The God that provides the fire is the designated victor. All agree and the prophets of Baal are up first. Sacrifice prepared, prophets call out, scream and command. Their god is a no-show. The ritual turns bloody, the calls louder but to no avail; they fail to ignite the fire. Taunted and prompted by Elijah, the only thing ablaze was their anger.

Next, comes Elijah. Twelve altar stones for the twelve tribes. Certainly the people recall those tribes led by their God, led from the slavery of Egypt. Water poured three times, the ritual of purification, the crossing of the sea and the river Jordan. Then a prayer, not a rant or a show, but a prayer that talked to God in a familiar way. It was not anger ablaze, but hearts; and to a heart a True God always listens. The flames appear, so similar to the flames of Pentecost. With that the people return to their God, a God that never deserted them.1 Kgs 18:20-39

R. Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.
They multiply their sorrows
who court other gods.
Blood libations to them I will not pour out,
nor will I take their names upon my lips.
R. Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope. Ps 16

In the gospel Jesus says that He does not come to abandon the law, but to fulfill it. Certainly the people were familiar with the law, but maybe they saw it as ritual. Programmed chants and gyrations devoid of emotion. Manipulated and corrupted and profaned by the likes of Ahab. They became laws that lacked passion. Jesus did not come to abandon the law but to fulfill it, just as He said. His was not so much about the letter of the law, but about the author. It was a change in perspective, away from man and back to God. His was not the fear of enforcement, but a zeal for compliance, and that compliance came with an understanding that the law was a benefit and not a curse. They guided one to a rich pasture and not bankruptcy. The law was for the person’s benefit and not their detriment. A benefit for those that followed, and not those that enforced. Not written on a tablet, or in a scroll; but in a heart. With the laws there the Holy Spirit can descend with tongues of fire, just as on Elijah’s altar.Mt 5:17-19 The flames appear, so similar to the flames of Pentecost.

Wednesday of the Third Week of Lent

Standard

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

When Jesus makes this statement, I at once both immediately understand it, and am confused by it. I understand it because I have studied Christianity. I am familiar with His Churches catechesis, and many have made sure that I know the difference between a law and the spirit of that law. I have grown up in a culture where religious laws are interpreted, and the reason that they are interpreted is because a literal obedience leaves so much room for abuse. Look to the holy lands today and witness the smashing of ancient artifacts because someone thought they violate a religious decree. Yet as much as that ancient art was deemed against a religious law, a religious argument could have been made for that record of civilization to be cherished. Literally the law might have stated that no icon representing God can be made. Was a law also made that stated an ancient peoples artwork representing their god should be destroyed? The letter of the law might state that one should not make an image of God. The spirit though might suggest that nothing man makes can match the splendor of God, and it is wrong to deceive someone to thinking what they peddle is good as God. The spirit is against deceit and idolatry, while the letter can be misinterpreted against ancient artifacts. Sure , in an ancient civilization Moses would have smashed an idol like he did the golden calf. In the day it was created it lead people away from God. In a museum today though, that same idol can enrich a persons sense of culture and lead them towards God. How much better for someone to learn the reasoning behind a law than for an ignorant person extract vengeance because they think someone broke a law. How much worse for a person to manipulate a law to serve their  own selfish interest. What a gift to be guided through the history and meaning of a law and their varied interpretations.

My confusion with that is from trying to understand it as those disciples heard it. I have trouble sometimes understanding the burden of a religious law enforced by a tribunal, though current events have enlightened me. Much more than stone has been shattered by thugs enforcing Gods decrees, how thankful I am Jesus came to fulfill those laws and teach what they truly mean.I think of the human lives lost through the misguided enforcement of a law wrongly interpreted.

I should also add a note though that those people who are destroying those ancient artifacts can always exclaim “but you do not know or understand our laws!” and they would be right except even among their own religion a Queen of theirs proclaimed that what they do is not part of their religion , but that they are only crazy fanatics.  I am sure she does not abandon her laws either. I wonder if those disciples of Christ, so familiar with how laws were enforced, understood what Jesus meant when He said He did not come to abolish the law. Those ancient disciples also saw many laws enforced, and misinterpreted, with painful consequences. I wonder if they understood that when Gods law was read and followed correctly, only the burden was removed and not the law.

Remember and pray for the Jordanian Pilot, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, murdered by those who falsely interpreted a law, for their own gain, falsely in the name of God.

Monday of the first week of Lent

Standard

The first thing that strikes me in the Old Testament readings Lv 19:1-2, 11-18  is that repetitive phrase “You Shall Not ” Its not that I object to any of the things that I am told not to do, but those constant “No!” statements is a bit unsettling. They draw a line and I have to wonder how close I can get to that line without crossing it. There emphasis is negative. Equally unsettling, each statement starts with that “You shall not”,  ends with ” For I am the LORD.” Within those two statements,there is that reminder of the Garden where I shall not eat from a certain tree; and what happened there. Like the Garden, each of the statements leaves open the option that I can be like God if only I break one of the rules. They beg for rebellion, or at least a little disobedience.

Not so with the New Testament Mt 25:31-46. In the New Testament, if I do the right things I gain the chance to be included in the kingdom. There really is not much difference between what is intended how I act, as both Old and New do truly relate to Jewish concern for  the treatment individuals. Both  focus on Jewish ethics, but there is that difference between the two testaments in their emphasis of punishment and reward. Gone in Jesus’s testament that comparison from what one should do versus what one ought not to do. Without that comparison then , one does not focus on a legal interpretation. Instead comes the approach of doing an abundance of good. Emphasis is placed on action rather than avoidance. It guides me towards things I can and should do, it makes me seek them out, rather than avoiding crossing a line. Rather than being accused of theft, I am encouraged to I offer gifts of charity. I am  to find ways of praising God, rather than avoid avoiding profiling the name of the LORD.I can think of many ways of offering praise. The curses occasionally slip out and I am left trying to justify them. There is  a difference between finding ways to serve, and avoiding an offense. Much of the difference is emotional, but emotions do make a difference. Love and Hate are emotions.

He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’

When one looks at the thou-shall-not’s, they  pass judgment. Did they offend  my God? If THEY did, then I SHALL seek vengeance. With that thought I turn to the troubled Mid-East. Think of the violence and the atrocities committed because some group thinks someone did something God  told them not to do. Pause and think then of the horrors committed by men avenging their God. God created all that is seen and unseen. Do those people really believe God needs their protection, or are they following the wrong emotion? What if those terrorists chose charity over vengeance? What if they did something positive, rather than lash out against an offense. Fed the hungry, clothed the naked, or gave water to the thirsty? How much better is that than the reign of terror and bullets and hatred that consume them in the name of God. In that corner of the world relief workers like Kayla Mueller did work bring aid to the suffering.How much better was her love for the suffering, than the hatred of those who deliver pain and suffering and terror and death. Hers is the kingdom she brought to others, that Kingdom Jesus preached. It does come down to emotions, love or hate. She chose to love her neighbor, while her adversaries could not see past their hatred.