Seventh Sunday of the Year
A young lad was told by his father, who was going away on business, to think what the father would do normally to help the mother around the house in terms of household tasks while he was away. On his return, the father asked the mother what the boy had done. She replied that it was very strange because ‘straight after breakfast he made himself another cup of coffee, went into the living room, put on some loud music, and read the newspaper for half an hour.’ This was not the kind of literalness he hoped the boy would emulate.
Jesus asks us to look to our God and emulate God in mercy and compassion. The readings steer us into another direction by pointing to a God who is merciful and compassionate, not vengeful when he said, “You have heard how it was said ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I’m challenging that: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” In the face of “an eye for an eye” philosophy, loving one’s enemies is corny and unrealistic. The attraction of violence was prevalent in Jesus’ as it is today. The church has also resorted to violence as we see from the Crusades, the Inquisition, the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and threats towards people speaking out on church teaching. It may be shocking that Patriarch Kiril has approved the invasion of Ukraine but are we not shocked that many Christians support a violent response with gifts of more and more weapons designed to kill more people on both sides without making a space for dialogue and negotiation.
Israel had to learn that God has no favourites. The church must learn that as well. Israel was not chosen to be special while the rest of humanity lived in outer darkness. This can be the basis for an exceptionalism we find in Israel, the USA, Australia, and church. Israel was chosen to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, so that through Israel all humanity would be blessed. Jesus was offering a new sort of justice, a creative, healing, and restorative justice that would not end up in revenge. He was calling them to a justice imagination. Israel at the time of Jesus had many enemies and they occupied by harsh rulers that subjected the people harsh rules and crippling taxes. There were divisions within society as well where some were very wealthy and most people being poor or very poor. Before the face of potential violence Jesus calls for creative ways to reflect God’s compassionate love, and God’s light to the world. The desire for revenge can be strong and now more powerful with social media. It can used as a weapon to reject people we dislike, disagree with, ‘conservatives’ or ‘lefties’, people of other religions or sexual orientation. But, in doing this, we fall short of God’s holiness, and we inflict ‘death’ on each other.
In 2005, in Enough Rope Andrew Denton interviewed Johnny Lee Clary, a former Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leader, about his journey from a world of hate to peace. His father taught him about prejudice, racism and bigotry where non-white people were the exception. (http://www.abc.net.au/tv/enoughrope/transcripts/s1453904.htm). When his father shot himself, His mother abandoned both him and his sister after his father’s suicide. Seeking acceptance, he joined the KKK and was tasked with stereotyping black people, and inciting fear among the white people. The KKK rule book says, ‘The physical touch of a non-white is pollution.’ He was disarmed when he meet a black minister, Rev Wade Watts, held out his hand. That minister’s church was also burned down. When the KKK burned crosses outside his home, the Watts offered hotdogs and marshmallows for the barbeque!! Clary could not deal with the positive responses coming his way. Later, at a restaurant, the pastor was surrounded by about 30 KKK members, who threatened to do to him what happened to the chicken on his plate. Watts picked up the plate and kissed the chicken. It was another KKK defeat. Clary left the KKK and ‘flipped the script.’ He exchanged one powerful set of beliefs for another to also become a minister.
Jesus asks us to ‘flip the script’ with the examples given in the gospel: turn the other cheek, walk two miles, give not just your outer garment but one’s inner garment, as well. It is not about being passive but a loving response - radical, creative and nonviolent – where the oppressor is stripped of control and the opening of a door for a transforming relationship where the humanity of all is respected. Clearly, it is not about avoiding things, but doing what will make a difference and transform relationships. This is the foolishness Paul speaks of. This is the foolishness that empowers people to act lovingly even in the face of violence against self or those we love. Paul insists that we encounter God in every person – a ‘temple of God.’ where God dwells. The One dwelling within us also dwells within the other.
Jesus' call to love God and neighbour would have been welcomed when understood as being reserved for one’s own people or kin. Sticking to your own kind was not a value Jesus embraced. Jesus broadens this to include everyone, Jews and Gentiles, friends, and enemies. Hence the call the call to go to the peripheries, to the people and places ‘not like me’. It seems like foolishness in the ‘real world.’ We could ask what has ever been achieved by violence or retribution. Jesus’ point is to do the unexpected, to ‘flip the script’, to break down conflict and create spaces for a relationship and recognising the humanity of all - even in the enemy. An industry of images exists to make the ‘enemy’ look inhuman. Jesus is suggesting ways to defuse violence. Cartoons have, and do, depict people as less than human whether they be Middle Eastern, Russian, Asian, or people of colour. Love of enemies is not an appendage tacked onto Jesus’ teaching, but part and parcel of the call to ‘perfection’.
Trying to imagine a nonviolent world and putting his teachings into action is not necessarily easy. It requires ongoing work and prayer. Prayer is basically an ever-deepening immersion and participation in the love of God which is embodied in the wide diversity of our sisters and brothers and extended in habitats, neighbourhoods, plant, and animal creatures as well. It might mean being vilified, seen as mad, bad, or sad, as we try to include when others exclude; when we call for nonviolence in the face of vengeance; when we welcome the stranger where others reject them. The struggle to be ‘perfect’ can be counter cultural. We never achieve but must work towards it. It takes courage to challenge the prevailing expectations and challenge the prevailing wisdom. Though we might advocate for people trapped in the crucifying realities of death, we need to recognise how we benefit from systems of discrimination and exceptionalism where people are seen as less than human and more as ghosts because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or social position. We might ask what would our world look like if ‘perfection’ was measured by compassion and justice rather than church attendance, nice buildings, or avoiding wrong? What would our world look like if we refused to destroy the lives of others and of creation because we recognise God’s indwelling presence in all? Imagine if we did not worship the God of violence, power, and oppression that Jesus rejects and embraced this compassionate and loving God. Inspired by Pope Francis, let us take the microphone away from ‘warmongers’ and ‘hate-mongers’ (including shock jocks) so that peace and nonviolence become mainstream.
Jesus’ call for perfection is a call to strive to be like God. Whether it means to be merciful or compassionate, we are called to emulate God in our treatment of one another.