|Date:||February 18-19, 2017, Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A|
My brother-in-law Joe is the CEO of Tampa Airport. A week ago Thursday he and a couple of dozen other airline industry executives were invited to the White House to meet with the President. Betsy's sister had texted her that CNBC was airing the meeting live so we tuned in. I got to see Joe shake hands with the President of the United States. Now Joe grew up as the sixth of eight children in a rented home in North Tarrytow that had 3 bedrooms and 1 bathroom. He was the son of the Democratic mayor of N. Tarrytown who devoted his life to helping those on the margins get housing and jobs and care. He grew up in a family that idolized JFK. Yet when I watched this kid from 21 Barnhart Ave shake hands with the President I got the sense that Joe's experience transcended politics. Our country and to a great extent our whole world, and if we are honest about it, even the Church at times are so polarized that it is hard to see how we come through this to a world that realizes' Jesus prayer that we become one as Jesus and the Father are one.
The good news is that Jesus shows us the way. The Gospels give us a great variety of what could be seen as contentious encounters between Jesus and various groups, many of which have more authority or power in the world than he does. The world would teach us that what we need to do is go gather more authority or power, but Jesus shows us there is another way.
From how he responds to the crowd ready to stone the woman caught in adultery, to Zacceus wealthy but despised by his own people, to the three scenarios Jesus talks about in today's Gospel, what Jesus does is bring to the forefront the humanity of those involved, the common personhood we all share. By commanding us to love our enemy Jesus reminds us that our enemy is also our brother or sister.
We must treat the ones who hurt us as if they are sons and daughters of God and our brothers and sisters, because we have been blessed with the gift of knowing that that is indeed who they are. I know that is hard to do but anything short of that hurts us worse than our enemy.
But even harder to understand and to put into practice is the teaching Jesus gives us for when we are on the other side of the power. When we are the slave, or the conquered, or the oppressed. How is there any good in turning the other cheek, in giving our coat to someone who robs us of our shirt? Is Jesus saying to be doormats? How does this stop the violence? To understand this, we have to look carefully at these sayings as well as know something about the laws and customs of the time. Jesus says, "When someone hits you on your right, turn the other one". How does someone (who is right handed) have to hit some one on the right cheek? With the back of the hand. Who do you hit with the back of the hand. An equal - no; a slave or someone not worth the bother. To turn the other cheek is to make the other person remember that you are a person. If they want to punish you, they must fight you as an equal not treat you as a slave. And what about the coat thing. In Jewish law, it was a serious crime to make another naked in public by taking their clothes for any reason. By offering the coat as well as the shirt, you would put the other in the position of committing that crime. So the action is meant to force the other person to regard you as a real person not as some object. And then Jesus says if someone presses you into service for a mile, walk a second mile. Roman law said that a soldier could press a Jew (or any inhabitant of one of the occupied countries) into service for only one mile. Any more and they would be breaking Roman law. By walking the second mile, you would be forcing the Roman to acknowledge that you are a person with the power to put him in violation of the law, not just some conquered slave.
So Jesus’ message is clear and simple. In everything you do, remember that the other one is a real person, a child of God. Then when you have the power, you will use it wisely. When you are the oppressed, instead of reacting with violence that begets violence, act in such a way as to make your personhood clear. That is the way that Ghandi led India out of slavery, the way that Martin Luther King broke the stranglehold of discrimination in our country, the way the Polish trade union movement brought down the communist oppression in Poland. It is the truth that lays bare the lie that violence can solve anything. Jesus lived this to the cross where he hangs as a stark reminder that whenever we do violence to another, we are doing it to God.
How would our lives be different if we followed Jesus's example of focusing on the person or persons in front of us in situations of conflict? And of course it is not only for conflict. How would we receive communion if we really focused at who it is we are receiving rather than what? If we really understand that we are encountering not just a human person but one who is divine as well?