This week Deacon Scott Little of the diocese of Venice, Florida is giving a five day mission in our parish. The following is his weekend homily. Scott is a dear friend and truly a man of God. Thank you Scott.
Today we continue to listen to the teaching of Matthews’ Jesus, here in ordinary time.
Matthew has moved past the extraordinary teaching of the beatitudes and his teaching about what his disciples are to be in the world. The gospel now moves into a section of teaching that seems to be mostly about our interior. Jesus does a teaching about anger, about adultery and divorce, and taking oaths. In this gospel he speaks to us about retaliation and holding enemies. As usual it’s a pretty remarkable teaching.
It's important to remember that Jesus lived in a shame and honor society, even more than in the current day. Maintaining your honor was extremely important. That would have been the mindset at the time.
We should remember that the phrase "An eye for an eye tooth and a tooth for a tooth", was not a requirement, it was a limitation in the Jewish law. They believed that there needed to be equivalency, but Jesus Christ as usual was trying to teach us about our souls and the effect that held anger, resentment and retaliation have on our ability to be connected with our heavenly Father. His teaching was elegant because it did provide for a strong statement to be made to the person who was guilty of taking advantage.
Turning the other cheek to an aggressor required that aggressor to change hands to render a blow. They only struck backhanded. Turning the other cheek would require them to switch hands, which was never done in their culture.
No one would ever demand a person’s cloak along with their tunic because a cloak was so essential for a persons welfare. It was essentially a person’s sleeping bag. It was essential for each person’s welfare. There was also a set limit on how far anyone could be conscripted to carry anything. That limit was one mile. So Jesus saying they offer a second mile was a suggestion that the conscripted person make an offering that was outrageous and sure to point out the unreasonableness of the demand .
So there was a real activism in the responses that Jesus called for, but they were not responses that would damage the aggressor or would damage the afflicted person's interior. The response was aimed at changing the person’s heart, by forcing them to be open to the person that they had afflicted.
God calls us to holiness because our growth in holiness determines the orderliness of our world.
Jesus Christ’s teaching on this actually was demonstrated very recently and the media reported widely on it.
Some may remember Dylann Roof, who was just sentenced to death for the killing of nine members of a church in Charleston South Carolina. He insisted on representing himself during his trial.
On June 17, 2005, nine members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston were shot to death while participating in a Bible study in the basement of their church. The shooter was a 21-year-old, self-proclaimed white supremacist. He wandered into the room that evening. Imagine this if you can. Nine black church goers were in the midst of prayer and study. They looked up to see a white man in jeans and a sweatshirt. Did they ask him to leave, did they threaten to call the police if he did not leave? No, they actually invited him to join them. For a time he did just that. He actually participated in their Bible study.
Just as they were finishing their study and had their heads bowed in prayer he pulled a gun out of his fanny pack, and one by one shot every single person in the room. Can you imagine the anguish of the families of those nine people? It is beyond comprehension. That is what makes the next part of the story so stunning.
Only three days later, when invited to share a statement at the shooter's bond hearing, the family members, one by one, turned to the shooter and said "I forgive you". Somehow their great call to Christian holiness prevented them from falling into hatred themselves. How could anyone knowing the circumstances expect them to do such a thing? It certainly would seem too much to ask of anyone, even a churchgoer, but these people were somehow able to do that. And what was the result of this heroic act of holiness? You might recall that less than one month later the South Carolina Legislature determined that the state of South Carolina would never again fly the Confederate flag.
The symbol of the Confederate flag has historically meant freedom and sacrifice to so many white people in South Carolina. In a real sense their flag represented their right to self determination, to freedom of choice and their own freedom to govern themselves as they saw fit. That same flag meant oppression and intimidation to people of color in the same state. In a very real sense, the flag meant the need to be afraid. Yet many people in South Carolina refused to identify with that concern and that viewpoint. No one ever believed that South Carolina would ever abandon that symbol, but after the heroic act of the family members of these nine people, and out of of sensitivity to their brothers and sisters, a predominately white legislature voted to take that symbol down forever. It was only 23 days after the shootings. There was no filibuster, there was no demonstration in the streets. They just took it down. It was removed reverently and folded to be stored as part of history there in the state house. Something that had seemed impossible became possible through a community compelled by the Christian statement of a few families. This was Jesus, teaching, manifest in our modern world. The result was there for everyone to see.
It is so important for us to believe the teachings of our Savior, and that they really can change the world. Just as important, is our remembering how much the abandonment of anger and retribution will change our hearts as well. It's not that we don't recognize wrong; more that we recognize it without abandoning our dignity and attachment to a God who only loves. He teaches us how important it is to push ourselves to be willing to love more as he loves.
As we move forward in our spiritual lives, and as we receive the love of God in the Eucharist, let's examine ourselves to see if we are holding resentment. Let’s check to see if we hold a desire for retribution and unforgiveness in our hearts. May we realize how much it damages ourselves and the world when we do. Let’s ask for the grace to understand and believe the teachings of our Lord and to know the peace of Christ.