Some Gospels don’t require much explanation on the surface, often times the words of Our Lord are enough and it’s the job of the homilist to help find the deeper meaning. That’s not today. This Gospel, needs explanation, some exegesis or bible study if you will. Let’s set the stage. We are still in Matthew Chapter 5 which is…The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taking His rightful place as the new Moses. These are the “new” commandments. What Jesus is doing here, is moving from the law, “you have heard that it was said…”, and showing us how to love “…but I say to you.” To understand this passage, we need to go back and understand the Israelite culture at that time. The Israelite culture you just heard, was “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” When we stop for a minute to think about that, it doesn’t take us long to see that it can get out of hand in a hurry. Let’s say after Mass, I give…a punch on the arm. Perhaps my “punch” to…was my way of telling him/her that he/she did such a great job on the 1st reading today. But…doesn’t take it that way and feels that they’ve been wronged. Under the “eye for an eye” rule, …is entitled to take a whack back at the Deacon. Now the Deacon feels wronged and is going to take his entitled shot back at… You can see where this is going. In old Israel, it got to the point where whole families were being wiped out over nothing. Jesus came to stop all that. But He does it in such a subtle, yet masterful, way. When He says to turn and offer the other cheek, He is now taking control of the situation. If someone strikes again, the one who’s been hit now holds all the cards and may be owed some measure of justice, which, by the way, comes not now, but in heaven. But also notice what Jesus does NOT say in this Gospel and He does not say to offer a third cheek. The world likes to translate this passage in that way. In no way does Jesus condone anyone being abused at any time. If the other cheek is offered and struck, we have every right to leave the situation and if we can’t leave the situation, we have every right to defend ourselves. At the same time, we can’t be afraid to be “struck”. We have to tell the truth to the world and there will be times that people will strike us because of that truth, because we’re upsetting their world. We cannot retaliate. Jesus asks us to stop the violence and to love our enemies.
The key to unlocking today’s Gospel really lies in our second reading from 1st Corinthians. “Let no one deceive himself.” We really need to have a sense of where we are in journey with the Lord. To be able to love our enemies we have to have that self-awareness, we cannot deceive ourselves. But we do deceive ourselves don’t we? Case in point. Toward the end of summer last year, I was a little beat up physically and maybe mentally (no pity please) and I decided to take some time off from working out to heal. Now feeling a little on the fat side around Christmas, I decided to start working out again for the new year. One day, just recently, I was in the basement lifting weights, feeling pretty good about myself, pumping iron, a little sweat going. In my head, I’m Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime or maybe the Steelers’ James Harrison, all pumped up. When, my beloved three-year-old daughter Maria comes downstairs, sees me working out and says, “Wow! Dad! Your belly is getting bigger!”…God’s little messenger...The vision in my head instantly went from a bodybuilder to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. But, I needed that. I’ve since gotten a little more serious about what I’m doing and started a better diet.
To fully comprehend how to love our enemies, it takes change. A large part of our formation, our change, our movement from the human to the divine, becoming (all together), that best version of ourselves is to understand and embrace the loving of our enemies, which allows us to fully experience the true love of God. Let us remember our four pillars of formation; the human, the intellectual, the spiritual, and the pastoral. But today, I’d like to look at these in reverse order, to get to the foundation of our formation as they relate to our spiritual growth, namely our growth through prayer, scripture, and fellowship. This is where we’ll understand the need for love for others. First, our pastoral formation, as you all remember is the sharing of our faith with others. However, that can be very difficult to do in an adversarial relationship. Do we do nothing then? Certainly not, and inaction was assuredly not Jesus’ example. To get to the answer we have to go deeper.
Our spiritual formation relates to our spiritual growth in prayer. Jesus says as much today, “pray for your persecutors.” It’s prayer that plugs us into God, and it’s our communication to Him, and His communication to us where He can plant the seeds of change, where we start to love.
But let’s go further, our intellectual formation relates to our spiritual growth through our study of scripture. It is through scripture that understanding what it means to be a follower of Jesus, where Our Lord teaches us how to love. But, we still need to keep digging.
Our human formation is the foundation of our spiritual growth. To come to know God, we must come to know ourselves first. St. Catherine of Genoa was quoted “My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself.” How do we get to know what we look like? We use a mirror, we go outside of our own vision to see ourselves. We need to do the same thing spiritually. How do we do that? Deacon, are you advocating some sort of Zen Buddhist outer body experience? Not at all.
To get outside of ourselves we need others. We go beyond ourselves in two ways. Service and fellowship. When we interact with others through our service, no doubt we help them, but we also help ourselves. By putting ourselves at the service of those in need, we interact with Our Lord himself, who in turn, gives us a vision of our interior life, we become able to see inside and discover how well and how much we love others. Remember, we’re not trying to earn heaven through our service, we give our service to love.