Sunday, March 20, 2011

11-02-20: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18 / Psalm 103 / 1 Corinthians 3:16-23 / Matthew 5:38-48
If you were trying to follow the crisis in Egypt a few weeks ago, you might have been a bit confused about the American government’s position vis-à-vis Hosni Mubarak. Was Mubarak America’s friend of three decades, assisting us in maintaining a delicate peace in the Middle East? Or was he a cruel dictator, enemy of democracy and, therefore, our enemy as well? Some say we did right by siding with the masses in their quest for democracy (as if democracy were somehow sacrosanct); others say we threw Mubarak under the bus. The dilemma is reflected in today’s gospel: Jesus talks a lot about treating enemies as neighbors but, as recent events in Egypt prove, we all don’t agree on just who our neighbor is.

Definitions of an enemy are just as illusive. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer, the old adage goes. And then there’s that wise political insight: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The Old Testament knew the complicated nature of relationships, especially within tribal settings like that of ancient Israel. That’s why the law Jesus quotes from the Old Testament in today’s gospel – the Law of Retaliation (Lex Talionis) – is so often misunderstood. While we modern westerners tend to hear it as a harsh and merciless injunction about retaliation, about getting even, its purpose was just the opposite. It was meant to limit vengeance by forbidding unjust or disproportionate retaliation for an injustice incurred. In other words an eye for an eye not an eye for a bruised lip.

With that in mind, the gospel today can be understood as deeply radical, as if Jesus were legislating forgiveness, mercy and love – as if you could, by force of law, command someone to forgive an enemy for a perceived injustice he had committed against you and yours. I’m reminded here of the true story, made public a few decades back in the TV movie, The Scarlet and the Black, starring Gregory Peck as Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty and Christopher Plummer as Nazi Colonel Herbert Kappler.

O’Flaherty is a Vatican diplomat who is responsible for helping thousands of Jews escape Nazi occupied Rome during World War II. He hides them in convents and rectories throughout Rome, while the Nazis, under Colonel Kappler’s authority, are seeking to send them to concentration camps and certain death. Kappler knows what O’Flaherty was doing and he attempts to have him assassinated on several occasions. As the Allies move closer to Rome, Kappler arranges a secret meeting with O’Flaherty where, with not a little chutzpah, the Nazi begs O’Flaherty to help his family escape Rome – much the way O’Flaherty helped Jews escape the Nazis. O’Flaherty is furious and leaves Kappler in a swirl of muffled expletives. After the Allies have retaken Rome, Kappler is arrested, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment; his family, however, has mysteriously vanished. For the next fifteen years Kappler receives only one visitor at regular intervals while he is in prison – Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty. In 1959 O’Flaherty baptizes Kappler a Catholic.

The story highlights the psychological truth that loving your enemy in such a radical way is no wishy-washy endeavor; it requires an act of the will which, I would venture to guess, few of us seem strong enough to summon. It doesn’t mean that you forget the ways in which your enemy has hurt you and those you love – it should never mean that, God forbid. On the contrary, it means acknowledging all the ugliness inherent in such a relationship and making the willful decision to do what is in the best interests of your enemy nonetheless.

Stories like O’Flaherty’s are inspirational but also sobering, bringing to light the cold hard facts that most of us have a hard time doing what’s in the best interests of those we already love on an emotional level, let alone doing good for those we can’t stand. Christ might command us to love our enemies but, even he must know, that most of us must start with very small steps, taking our first cue perhaps from that Old Testament Lex Talionis, realizing that limiting our thirst for vengeance may be the initial step we need to take on that long journey into the mystery where justice and mercy, transformed by love, become indistinguishable.

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