Seven Sunday in Ordinary Time (a)

Perhaps the most difficult of all of Christ's commands are those which are expounded in today's gospel: If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… and Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you[1].

All of us, beginning with myself, are inclined to think that certainly when the Lord says "Forgive them" or "Love them" he cannot be referring to the terrible people who commit horrible crimes. There is something within us that believes that real justice is in the law of talons: an eye for an eye. In reality, we would rather live in an Old Testament world, a world without Christ, than live in a world where we are expected to sacrifice our desire for vengeance to the Lord's command to love our enemies. Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been tried and found difficult.

Perhaps it is for these reasons that some Catholics have quite a bit of difficulty with the Church's position opposing capital punishment. The popes have spoken out numerous times against capital punishment, and the Bishops of the United States voiced their opposition to Capital punishment as a unified body over thirty years ago[2].

It is right here that today's gospel hits home. People tend to confuse retribution with vengeance. Most people, Catholic and non Catholic, support the death penalty not to protect society, but to inflict vengeance upon the criminal.

Time and again we hear the arguments: this person has caused so much pain to the victim and to his or her families that he does not deserve to live. Or "I know my slain son or daughter will rest easier once the criminal is killed." Or, "As long as the criminal is alive, I will never feel that this matter is put to rest."

My brother, my sister, we have to stand strongly behind the principle that all life is sacred, even that of a terrible criminal. The Church cannot at one moment mount a campaign to respect life in the fight against abortion and at the same time ignore the fact that here in the twenty-first century we are still eliminating life in the name of justice[3].

Perhaps the most difficult words we pray today and every day are those words found in the Lord's Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. That word, trespass, means to cross the line. When we say the Our Father we are saying that we will forgive those who cross the line of common decency so that we also might be forgiven for any ways that we have crossed the line. If we refuse to forgive, if we demand the law of talons, an eye for an eye, if we desire vengeance more than Christ's presence, then we are refusing to accept Jesus Christ himself. In fewer words: if we demand an eye for an eye the whole mankind will be blind

Christianity is continually reforming itself, and Christian society must continually scrutinize its actions to see if it is living up to the standards set by the Lord. Consider slavery. It took almost nineteen hundred years for Christians to recognize that slavery was incompatible with Christianity. It will take many more years for Christians to eliminate the various ways the law of talons has been embedded into our culture. But the standard is there. The standard for what is Christian and what is not Christian is the Law of the New Kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Word of God.

G. K. Chesterton certainly had it right: Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried. But Christ never said that following him would be easy. Nor did he say that his followers would ever enjoy the majority position. Our Lord just said that he would be with us always. That is worth every sacrifice, even the sacrifice of our deepest, darkest desires. Amen ■


[1] Sunday 20th February, 2011, 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Readings: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18. The Lord is kind and merciful. Ps 102(103):1-4, 8, 10, 12-13. 1 Corinthians 3:16-23. Matthew 5:38-48.
[2] It would be helpful for us to recall this statement and the justifications for their arguments. Back in November of 1980 the Bishops noted that Catholic teaching historically has accepted the principle that the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime and that the state has the right to protect itself and its citizens from grave harm. However, they wrote, in the contemporary American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment no longer justifies the imposition of the death penalty.  The legitimate purposes of punishment are deterrence, reform and retribution. The death penalty was reinstated in 1967. The soaring number of murders in our country since then shows that the death penalty does not work as a deterrent. The criminal who is put to death, obviously, cannot reform even if this reform were to be limited to whatever contributions that criminal could make from a prison cell. Finally, retribution refers to the repayment of stolen property. No amount of retribution can replace the life of the victim.
[3] One of the great gifts of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, is the doctrine of the seamless garment. Basically, this doctrine states that we have to be consistent and support all human life. There is no seam in the garment, no line where the justification for eliminating human life changes. I know that there are some who read this who are thinking that I am taking a liberal position regarding capital punishment. No, I am taking the position of the Catholic Church. The Church does not choose liberal or conservative positions. The Church proclaims the truth and liberals or conservatives decide if this fits into their own agendas.

Y entonces uno se queda con la Iglesia, que me ofrece lo único que debe ofrecerme la Iglesia: el conocimiento de que ya estamos salvados –porque esa es la primera misión de la Iglesia, el anunciar la salvación gracias a Jesucristo- y el camino para alcanzar la alegría, pero sin exclusividades de buen pastor, a través de esa maravilla que es la confesión y los sacramentos. La Iglesia, sin partecitas.

laus deo virginique matris