Today, Catholic Christians celebrate the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time.
On this day, we hear some very clear words about how we are to treat others, even those who hurt us.
In the Book of Leviticus, for example, we read, “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19: 17-18).
And in the Gospel passage we have today from St. Matthew, we hear these commandments from Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well” (Matthew 5: 38-39).
Jesus goes on to give us another commandment when he says, “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father…” (Mathew 5: 43-44).
Needless to say, these are amazing words from Scripture. These are presented in a very clear manner. They are not wrapped up in a mysterious parable that has many meanings. And they make no exceptions.
For many Christians, these commandments are too difficult, so they simply reject them. I have found in my priesthood, that often, the people who reject these commandments are the same people who criticize other Catholic Christians for being “cafeteria Catholics,” people who pick and choose what they want to believe and what they don’t want to believe.
But before looking at these commandments in greater detail, let’s look at the following story that I call, “Welcome home, Mr. President.”
The year was 1978, and the scene was the White House in Washington, D.C. The occasion was a gathering of hundreds of government officials from all over the world who had come to pay respects to the memory of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey who had just died.
Among the guests was former President Richard Nixon, the first president in American history to resign from the presidency. Not only did he resign, he resigned in disgrace and humiliation. For politicians, he was a persona non grata, a person subject to being ostracized by peers.
And this is exactly what former President Nixon experienced in this gathering. The other guests avoided him as though he was radioactive, and he was left standing alone by himself.
Then, a very interesting thing happened. President Jimmy Carter walked in the room. President Carter, from a different political party from former President Nixon, was well known for his honesty, integrity, and southern graciousness. He also had the gift of reading crowd sentiment very clearly. It took President Carter just a minute to size up the situation: everyone was ostracizing President Nixon.
So, instead of taking his seat, President Carter walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, smiled broadly, and in a voice loud enough for others to hear said, “Welcome home, Mr. President! Welcome home!”
With that act of hospitality, President Carter became a living, walking, talking homily. What he was demonstrating for others is what Jesus was trying to teach us, that is, to love even those who are not like us, even those who may have hurt us.
Newsweek magazine reported, “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”
The Scripture passages we have today give us many commandments. They tell us we are to abandon the Old Testament idea of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Thus, “getting even” with our enemy is no longer acceptable for the Christian.
We also learn that we are to love others as ourselves. This is a double commandment. In this commandment, love means we wish the very best for a person. So, to love our self means we wish the best for us, and to love others means we wish the best for others. And because our ultimate goal is eternal salvation, that means we wish that all people be saved.
But today’s Scripture passages also remind us that actions are not enough. Rather, we are not to harbor hatred or cherish any grudges in our hearts either.
Needless to say, these Scripture passages are not easy. Thus, for over two thousand years, there have been theologians and philosophers and other thinkers who have tried to create justifications for not having to follow the commandments of love and peace that we encounter in today’s Scripture. Only you can decide if you will follow them, for only you have your conscience. And as Catholic Christians, we know that our conscience is our ultimate guide for determining right the right course of action for us.
As we continue our life journeys this week, it would be a good idea to reflect on how we love our neighbor as ourselves, and how we pray for those who harm us.
That is the good news I have for you on this Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2017.
Story source: Maxie D. Dunnam, “Welcome Home Mr. President,” in the Workbook on Living as
a Christian, Nashville, TN: Abington, 1994, pp. 112-113.