The “eye for an eye” teaching that our Lord refers to in today’s gospel (Mt. 5:38-48) was actually an attempt to restrict violence in a time when revenge was indiscriminate and excessive. In the revenge culture of the time not only was it the perpetrator of a violent act who became a possible target for reprisal but any member of the same family, clan, ethnic group or even someone “thought” to be responsible or connected. The culture of revenge was excessive. Sadly, the same mentality of revenge is still present and active in our world today.
An “eye for an eye” therefore was an attempt to limit the continuous cycle of revenge and violence. For our Lord though it was not enough. His desire is not just to limit the cycles and structures of violence but to heal the human heart from which all evil desires spring. Evil and violence can never overcome evil and violence, even when co-opted for a good. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had an astute awareness of this truth. In his writings and speeches we certainly find the call to end the massive injustices that the African-American community faced but we also find Dr. King reflecting on how the path of non-violence was also meant as a means to help heal those white brothers and sisters whose hearts were hardened by racism and prejudice.
God says to Moses, Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Lv. 19:1-2, 17-18)
In contrast to the law of co-opted violence, our Lord calls us to the law of abundant generosity – to be holy as God is holy, who makes the sun to rise on the bad as well as the good. God is love; he is abundant in his mercy. Our Lord is not naïve; he knows the full weight of evil and violence. On the cross, Jesus took on the full weight of sin and its structures.
In the law of abundant generosity, Jesus is calling us to a pragmatism of generosity. Evil and violence cannot heal the human heart (even when co-opted in an attempt for the good). Evil and violence cannot end the cycles of revenge and violence … only love can. When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other one. When someone wants your tunic, give your cloak as well. When someone presses you into service for one mile, go for two. Our Lord proposes to us the pragmatism of generosity. It is through this pragmatism that is found true healing for hearts that are wounded and hardened.
There is a story told of a painter who arrived one day in a small town and set himself up in the town square offering portrait paintings. For a few days he sat in the square with no one purchasing a portrait. On the fourth day the artist approached the town drunk (whom he had noticed earlier) and said, “Listen, come and let me paint your portrait. I need to keep my skills up and at the end you will have a free portrait.” The man agreed. He sat in the portrait chair and straightened himself up as best he could. The painter looked at him silently, reflected for a few moments, smiled and began to paint. The painting continued for a few days but the painter would never allow the man to view the painting while it was in progress. Finally, the portrait was completed. The painter handed the portrait to the man and the man’s mouth fell open. Pictured in the painting was not a town drunk but an accomplished man – there was a gleam in his eyes, he held a steady gaze. Instead of scruffy clothes and a disheveled appearance, the man was clean shaven and wore a nice suit. “What is this?” demanded the man, “You have not painted me.” “You are right,” replied the painter calmly, “I have not painted you as you now are but as the man whom you might become.”
The pragmatism of generosity sees and responds to the other person in terms of who he or she is meant to be. Jesus calls us to live this law of generosity – to be holy as God is holy.
Pope Francis, in his continuing reflection on the act of preaching in Evangelii Gaudium, puts forward the image of a “mother’s conversation.” I find the image of the mother’s conversation to be striking by the sheer fact that it is a reality that probably 99.9% of humanity has experience with yet, because it is so common, it often goes unreflected upon. The Holy Father, in just a few short paragraphs, explores the dynamics of this form of conversation and presents it as a worthwhile model for all preachers to learn from.
We said that the people of God, by the constant inner working of the Holy Spirit, is constantly evangelizing itself. What are the implications of this principle for preachers? It reminds us that the church is a mother and that she preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child, knowing that the child trusts that what she is teaching is for his or her benefit, for children know that they are loved. (EG, 139)
There are two principles at play here which are of immense importance for preachers: 1. the love of a mother and 2. the awareness (sometimes awe, wonder and even concern) of life unfolding in the other.
First, the love of a mother. The love of a mother is unconditional, it cannot be faked and love ideally undergirds all the interacting and relationships of a family. St. Thomas Aquinas defined love as willing the good of the other as other. This is a good principle on which to base the preaching moment. The homily should be seen as an act of love, a giving of self, just as a mother giving advice, offering comfort or even challenging a son or daughter is an act of love. But the love is critical. If the love is absent then the words ring empty and they produce no lasting fruit. Just as a mother gives of her very self (even to the point of losing self) for her child then the preacher should see in the act of preaching a giving of self. Just as a mother would not hold back any of herself for the sake of her child then why should a preacher?
Yet, there are different levels to giving self in love. Not every moment of a mother’s love is giving physical birth to a child nor is every homily that a preacher gives the Easter homily. Just as a mother’s love is found in the daily and often unnoticed tasks so can a preacher’s love be expressed convincingly in the weekday, simple homily. What is key is the love being present (the love on the preacher’s part both for God’s word and God’s people). A mother’s fundamental concern when conversing with her child is neither to win admiration for a cleverly concocted argument nor to impress by her intellect but to love, to will the good of her child. The focus of the preacher should not be to win a reputation for his own erudition but to will the good of the community through the homiletic act. I would say that a preacher has done his job when a community leaves church spending less time thinking about him and more time thinking about themselves in the light of Christ.
Second, the awareness of life unfolding in the other. We said that the people of God, by the constant inner working of the Holy Spirit, is constantly evangelizing itself … Moreover, a good mother can recognize everything that God is bringing about in her children, she listens to their concerns and learns from them. (EG, 139) The mother is the first and primary witness of life moving and unfolding in her child. I would think that it is an amazing and awe-filled thing to behold. But just as she watches this life unfolding in the beloved she then learns and she adjusts because where the child is today is not where he or she was yesterday. Here, I believe that Pope Francis is saying that the preacher needs to have the same attentiveness toward his community and the Spirit at work in the community that a mother has toward her child and the movement and growth of life in her child. The spirit of love that reigns in a family guides both mother and child in their conversations; therein they teach and learn, experience correction and grow in appreciation of what is good. (EG, 139)
The mother, herself, grows in this dynamic of growth in her child; the preacher, himself, grows in learning to recognize the Spirit at work in his community! There is a great mystery at work here and I believe it relates to the scriptural image of the sower who sows the seed but then goes to bed and knows not how the seed takes root and grows. The preacher/the community, the mother/the child – all together – are caught up in this great mystery of the Spirit at work and each must step back and be attentive to how the Spirit is moving and then (trying neither to obstruct nor control) allow the Spirit to work through her or him.
In these short paragraphs and by use of the image of the mother’s conversation, Pope Francis is putting forward the living context of the homily. The context that allows for a living and effective homily is not a preacher isolated and removed writing down his own thoughts for the edification of the community. The context that allows a homily to be living and effective is that of family, relationship, conversation and love where all seek to be attentive to the movement of the Spirit.
Here is some sound advice from our Christian spiritual tradition. “If you want to advance in the spiritual life and the life of faith then love what Christ loved from the cross and disdain what Christ disdained from the cross.”
It is on the cross that Simeon’s words in today’s gospel (Lk. 2:22-40) reach their fulfillment. The innocent child is revealed as the man of sorrows and the “Christ of the Lord” who takes on the weight of sin that we might know salvation.
Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the Devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life. Surely he did not help angels but rather the descendants of Abraham; therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:14-18)
This is the salvation which God prepared in the sight of every people – Christ on the cross – and it continues to be a sign of contradiction and a sign of salvation to our world today.
What did Christ disdain from the cross? He disdained the lure of money, of power, of popularity and the ever present temptation to save oneself and all costs. What did Christ love from the cross? The will of the Father – that is all he had and it is all he wanted.
If we learn to disdain what Christ disdained and love what Christ loved then we develop what the Christian spiritual tradition terms “detachment”. Detachment is neither indifference nor ambivalence. Both of these are kind of a negative “talk to the hand, I really don’t care” approach to life. Detachment denies neither the energies nor the relationships of life rather it embraces them and rightly orders them.
Fr. Robert Barron in his “Untold Blessings” series reflects on this sense of detachment and uses the Beatitudes as a way of recognizing all the things that we attach ourselves to and thereby become addicted to. Here are just a couple of beatitudes from the sixth chapter of Luke for consideration in this regard.
Blessed are you poor… How easily do we attach ourselves to material things? We want the right house, the right bank account, the right toys to play with and our society tells us we should have these things – for ourselves and for those we love. Now, look at the cross. What did Christ have on the cross? Nothing, all he had was the knowledge of doing the will of the Father and that was enough for Jesus. Things are things – they are neither bad nor good in and of themselves – sometimes we will have things sometimes we won’t. It doesn’t matter. As we gain detachment we find joy not in things but in relationship with God and in doing his will.
Blessed are you when men hate you… Here is a tricky one. How easy it is to become addicted to approval. We all want to be liked, we want to be accepted and belong. But again, look at the cross – Jesus was hated; he was mocked and seen as a common criminal. The same crowds that sang hosannas and waved palm branches when he entered Jerusalem were the ones that yelled “Crucify him!” to Pilate. To Jesus it did not matter. He loved just the same. He was detached from the need for the approval of others. He was focused on the will of the Father. Neither praise nor disdain lessened the love of Christ. There are times when we will be praised and times when we will be mocked or even condemned. There are times we will succeed and times we will fail. If we develop detachment it will not matter what time and situation we find ourselves in we will love just the same.
How do we gain this spiritual sense of detachment? Do we isolate ourselves from others or do we repress all our feelings? No, that is not the Christian way. We look to Christ and we keep Christ at the center of our lives – just as Simeon did. Even though he did not yet know him, Simeon awaited the coming Messiah. He held that hope and that promise in his heart. Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel…
Love what Christ loved from the cross, disdain what Christ disdained from the cross.