23 February 2020 | General Interest
7TH SUNDAY YEAR A HOMILY 2020
REVENGE IS NEITHER RIGHT NOR GOOD, BUT LOVE REALLY IS!
Mt 5.38-48 Lev 19.17-18 1Cor 3.16-23
Michael Leunig has yet another interesting and insightful cartoon in the Weekend Age: “Every man’s a virus, Every woman too, Everyone’s infectious, This is what we do. We spread the love around; We spread the hate as well. We give each other heaven; We give each other hell. We catch it from each other; We get it from the moon. Everyone’s contagious; No-one is immune.” (Cartoon on screen). This is a poignant reflection on our interconnectedness, and the influence we have on each other and the world around us. We can’t isolate ourselves from reality, and it fits with Jesus’ message today, that we spread the love around and try our best to limit and reduce the hate that we see so often, in the way people misunderstand and mistreat each other.
An opening Mass I celebrated with the young ladies and broader community at St Columba’s College this week, focussed on the theme of compassion, the aptly-named Sisters of Charity having their tradition and ethos continued on in practice, with the college motto ‘Faithful and strong’ (‘Fidelis et fortis’) added to my Essendon stole, with Sister Josephine leading the way, along with many other Sisters in the front row at 102 this week (to whom we wished a very happy birthday in anticipation). In fact, they had a subversive meeting in PACE this weekend, preparing, plotting and planning for their coming review and Assembly, a wonderful group of faithful Religious women, who have given so much to the Australian Church!
There was a real sense of enthusiasm for working together in a supportive community of teachers, support staff and students, in the spirit of the Gospel, with a bookmark to mark the occasion, listing the need for ‘listening, encouraging, connecting and (being) empathetic, the focal point being on ‘compassion starts with you’. Lovely words, aren’t they, but the challenge of course is to apply these thoughts in practice.
And I reminded them that Project Compassion, highlighted next week from Ash Wednesday, is but one means of applying these principles by our own response to the needs of others. A generosity of spirit, by each of us, is called for. It all augurs well for the future, the keen spirit of involvement and participation of all, aware that this was not just a once off liturgical celebration, but a call to ongoing engagement with the message of the Gospel as people of Good News in a vibrant community. And, talking to our Grade 1’s this week, I picked up a similar enthusiastic vibe, as always at that level!
So we now continue the discourse of Jesus about human behaviour, and how to improve it, an never-ending work in progress, we might say. When we look today at the world around us, and the bad behaviour ongoing, we might wonder when will we ever learn about how little distance we have come since Jesus’ wise words were spoken about how human relations and attitudes could be improved.
They were wild times back there, with life often being seen as cheap, short, sharp and brutish, with the background thought that it was necessary to look after oneself, followed by one’s family or kin, before anyone else. There was a common view that revenge was fair enough, and the old adage ‘revenge is sweet’ was often enough applied once that revenge was achieved.
Progress could be seen along the way in human history, with the Lex Talionis (‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’) being a step forward, in evening things out, from ‘pillage the village’, if someone wronged another from outside that village. (Remember the evil quote during the Vietnam War – ‘We had to destroy the village to save it’, incredibly used as justification for attacking civilian communities, and out of fear of some supporting the other side!!). Then there was the law of reciprocity, where it was seen as a good thing not to do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself, a principle known as ‘The Golden Rule’ (up on screen), proclaimed in some way or other, by all of the mainstream world religions, where so often ignorance of the common ground between them, prevails.
Jesus clearly takes this further when he elaborates on the law of love, where he advocates not just forgiveness, but also love of enemies, a rather great leap forward and somewhat difficult, if not impossible for us to achieve in human terms. And yet, he is reminding us of our common humanity, and the need to work together in this imperfect, but wonderful, world, in which we find ourselves.
Once again, the Jerome Biblical Commentary highlights the persons of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King (and we know what happened to them, don’t we?), and we might as well include the late, great Nelson Mandela (who foreswore violence only in time, as he reflected during 10,000 days or so – 30 years!) as prime examples of applying this notion in practice, whereby injustice is challenged by non-violent non-co-operation and verbal proclamation, using the media in a positive way to highlight the truth of the wrongs in society and the need for reform and change for the betterment of all.
Jesus is not encouraging passivity in the face of evil, but active resistance to challenging wrongs, but with non-violence, verbal response and practical example. The scripture commentary states: “Jesus is teaching a strategy for winning, not passive resignation or indifference to evil… Christianity is not introverted aggression, but aggression transmuted into a strategy of winning through the wisdom of love.”
It then moves to sum up Jesus’ teaching thus: “General conclusion on retaliation and love of enemies. We can trace a five stage evolution in biblical thinking… unlimited revenge, limited revenge (getting even), the silver rule ‘Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, the golden rule… reaching out to do good, taking the initiative to create an atmosphere of good will; loving ones enemies, an invitation to moral heroism and sanctity… The sermon is not the whole of biblical revelation, but does represent a summit of moral wisdom whose validity proves itself in daily life when wisely applied.” Bismarck (a Protestant anti-Catholic Christian, who united Germany in the 19th century – with a fair degree of violence and force!) is quoted as asserting: “You cannot govern with the Sermon”, as it was seen to set too high an unfulfillable standard for human governance and order. Perhaps so, but there’s no harm in trying!
And whenever I strike Jesus’ command ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’, my mind always goes back to 1971 at Corpus Christi College Werribee, when Greg Trythall (currently PP of Williamstown, and good friend of Bill Attard and me, having had his 70th birthday here in PACE in 2017) wrote an article critical of the seminary diet, not having regular fresh fruit and wholemeal bread, as he quoted Jesus’ injunction to perfection, implying a healthy mind in a healthy body! We nicknamed him ‘Fruity’ and it stuck, and what’s more, his letter did achieve positive results!!
As for being perfect, or achieving a state of perfection, bad luck!! Let’s face the fact we’re never going to get there! Needless to say, there’s no harm in trying to improve, as we move along the path of Christian life, in the relentless passage of time. One translation suggests a better word is ‘blameless’, doing our best not just to keep out of trouble, but in setting good example by the moral choices we make and the actions we take to do the right thing, by reaching out to each other in compassion, understanding and mercy. And now it’s Lent coming upon us, with Project Compassion to prompt us to respond with generous hearts and open purses.
john hannon 23rd February 2020