Sunday, February 19,2017
Just Desserts

 

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Love for Enemies

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

(Matthew 5:38-48)

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I can’t say this with any certainty since I don’t watch TV any more, but when I did, it was obvious to me that conflict of any stripe was considered to be newsworthy. The only good news was bad news, if you get my drift. And given that I still get the occasional dose of it through my assorted electronic devices, it doesn’t look as if anything much has changed. From the complexities of international tensions to the local media scrums outside City Hall and local courthouses, it still holds that human misbehavior, disagreement, and conflict – and the resolution, or especially the lack of resolution thereof – is the primary focus of much reportage. At some deep and visceral level, we like to witness people being held accountable for their actions; we need to see wrongs righted and people getting their just desserts; and at some level, it seems to be important to us that punishment fits the crime; that for every negative or harmful action, there is an equal and opposite neutralizing reaction, if you’ll allow me some license with Newton’s Third Law. But all too often, there is no resolution to report; there is retaliation, not reconciliation; there is lingering resentment and unresolved conflict. Conflict, after all, is news.

Today’s gospel reading takes me back to an exception to that tendency, and although it happened several years ago, I carry the image and the example with me as something which makes today’s gospel lesson very real. Back in 2003, there was national coverage of the events leading up to the funeral of young NHL hockey player Dan Snyder, a native of Elmira, Ontario. Snyder died of massive head injuries suffered when the Ferrari in which he was riding, driven by his friend & Atlanta Thrashers team-mate Dany Heatley, spun out of control and hit an iron fence. In the news accounts at the time it was rumoured that Heatley planned to attend his friend’s funeral in Elmira, and there was considerable speculation about what his reception would be from the Snyder family. You’d think that he would be about as welcome as a skunk at a picnic, but he went, prepared to face the music – and personally, I’ll never forget the sight of Snyder’s father embracing the devastated young man who had been responsible for the accident, and the statements that were given to the media publicly by the Snyder family. There was no bitterness expressed, no desire for revenge or retaliation – only understanding and forgiveness. And two years later, when Heatley was being sentenced for second degree vehicular homicide, it was largely due to the Snyder family’s intervention that Heatley avoided a lengthy prison term for his tragic and costly mistake. The exceptionality of their response to personal tragedy made this story newsworthy – much like Pope John Paul II’s visit and offer of forgiveness to the man accused of trying to assassinate him in 1981. These stories don’t come along very often, but when they do, they’re a bit of a wake-up call, aren’t they? That Christians are caught being forgiving or understanding in these exceptional circumstances is apparently so rare as to be newsworthy.

Today from Jesus’ lips we hear quoted perhaps one of the least understood pieces of Old Testament legal principle….an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, an expression which tends to be heard as one of the most bloodthirsty and savage laws in the Old Testament….but that’s because we hear it as a threat, and not as it was intended to be heard. In a time when the consequence for committing even minor crime was often death, the ‘eye and tooth’ provision limited punitive consequences to be no more than the equivalent of the injury inflicted or the damage done. I understand it was also never literally carried out! Seen within its historical setting this isn’t savage, but rather the imposition of reason and mercy and an effort to avoid disproportionate response or an escalation into further violence. All this notwithstanding, Jesus still obliterated the principle of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, because in his view, retaliation, however controlled and restricted, has no place in the Christian life. We have different marching orders, more deeply rooted in the possibility and potential for understanding and reconciliation between people. The danger, I suppose, is in assuming that we’re being called to be doormats, to let people do to us whatever they please…. and that isn’t the case, either. What’s being asked here, I think, is a new standard of self-control and self-respect and confidence in God’s unfailing love that no one can threaten or take away. We can respond with kindness and generosity even to the most unreasonable situations because that’s what God does. God makes no distinctions, and so therefore, neither should we. To my ears, that’s remarkably freeing and allows me to offer benefit of the doubt in situations that are, well, potentially dubious at best.

As a kid growing up my best friend lived just down the street. As I think happens in most relationships between kids, we had occasional differences; altercations over lies told, promises broken, commitments not kept: kid stuff. We sorted it out in our own way, apologized, got over it, and moved on. I knew my friend wasn’t perfect, and neither was I – but when all was said and done, we had an unspoken commitment, as kids often do, to settle our differences amicably and get past it so we could do what we did best: play well together. Kids, in my limited experience, are remarkably forgiving for the most part; it’s adults who struggle with the concept and scrupulously keep track of real or imagined errors in judgment, made either by ourselves or by others. We struggle to maintain a healthy balance between accountability and forgiveness.

So today, as if in answer to the tensions that surround us and often hold us captive and immobilized, Jesus asks us instead to live in the awareness that we are agents of God’s grace – not only to those we like or get along with, but also to people who have injured us or our loved ones; and if as a human family we expect to play well together, it’s incumbent on all of us to recognize and hold at bay our almost instinctive urges to retaliate and seek revenge. God, who routinely and without hesitation forgives us, expects that we will exercise that same grace with others, and with ourselves as well – even if it hurts. This is the work God calls us to do….to be forgiving, to go the extra mile, and to love others as graciously and generously as God loves us. For this we pray and together say Amen.