Today’s readings focus on forgiving and being forgiven, so much a part of the Christian gospel that it is sometimes called the Law of Christ. It’s not a comfortable message, especially when great harm has been done. And after the great harm of 9/11, commemorated again last Monday, and all the outrages against people and property since then, including the very recent bomb attack in London, it might seem natural for people to want revenge, to seek retribution. Sixteen years ago, Arab Americans were shot on the streets of our cities for no reason other than being Arab. A fire-fighter who had been at Ground Zero and joined the army after war was declared on Iraq in October 2002. “I want to kick Arab butt,” he explained. Iraq had nothing whatever to do with 9/11. That didn’t matter.
Since then, more than 200,000 civilians have died in the wars we declared in our desire for vengeance. Some estimates indicate a figure in the millions.[i] In Afghanistan alone, 31,000 civilians have died and another 30,000 have been wounded. Over a thousand European civilians have died in retaliatory attacks and other terrorist acts in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Manchester, London, and Barcelona in the last two years. The cost in national treasure has been enormous – $4.8 trillion for our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.[ii] We don’t seem to know how to stop the killing and the destruction. And yet we read in Ben Sira, “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance….”
This is not some odd snippet thrown into scripture. It is a recurrent theme. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says “Beloved, never avenge yourselves,
but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” [See Deut. 32:35]. No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” [Rom 12: 19-20.] But do we really believe that? Are we likely to write it into our foreign policy?
Clearly, for Paul the opposite of vengeance is active forgiveness, as it was for Jesus. For they were schooled in the Jewish Law, where it was written very early on, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” [Lev. 19:18.] Jesus put it more strongly and widely, “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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” [Matthew 5:43-45]. Or even more simply, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” [Matthew 26:52].
We tend to think of forgiveness as something distinctively Christian, and it is certainly at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. But we find the same message in the Book of Sirach, expressed three hundred years earlier: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice, then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” He makes the point three time over, and in each instance he links being forgiven with forgiving. I wonder how many Americans prayed for forgiveness and mercy for the terrorists who carried out the attacks in 2001? And if we are slow in healing, perhaps it is because we are still lacking in forgiveness.
One of the most enduring memories I have of the events of 9/11 is the image of hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people around the world, gathered that night and in the nights that followed, holding candles and praying for the victims who perished and the survivors. I distinctly remember a woman in France saying “Today we are all Americans!” — a cry that was echoed over and over around the entire planet. That is, until the desire for vengeance overrode the possibility of healing and we let loose the dogs of war.
Jesus’ message to us today and every day remains the same – we say it so frequently that it has probably ceased to have much meaning – forgive us our trespasses – our debts, our sins – as we forgive those who sin against us. Among his final words before his own death according to Luke, he prayed for his executioners: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” [Luke 23:34]. They still don’t.
People in America and throughout the world turned to God in prayer on 9/11 and the days that followed. Let us also pray, that we as a people will grow beyond grief and anger that may have awakened within us the desire for revenge and retribution. Let us pray that we will remember that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for friends, and that we will find the mercy and forgiveness we seek only by giving it to others.
After the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, less than two weeks ago, the nation’s eyes (and those of much of the world) have been fixed on Hurricanes Irma, José, and Katia. Irma alone bids fare to cause the greatest havoc in US recorded history, surpassing Harvey and even Katrina. Reporters speak of “nature’s fury,” although it would not be amiss to remember “human negligence,” as decades of hesitation to curb carbon emissions undoubtedly contributed to the increase in both atmospheric and ocean temperatures that bear very greatly on the scope and intensity of hurricanes. Bickering about the science for political gain simply compounded the problem.
Attention to the storms, not to mention the devastating wildfires in the Pacific northwest and far west, as well as the storms and fires in other parts of the world, have at least temporarily diverted media attention from the ongoing drama of investigations into possible political malfeasance on the national, state, and local levels. For political storms also abound this year. And it is these that provide a kind of coincidental background for today’s liturgical readings.
In recent months, it seems that some inhabitants of the political arena seem to have developed a special interest in digging up dirt on other inhabitants, especially if they happen to be politicians, and most especially if they’re in the other party. It is unarguably true that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance” – an American slogan traceable to Thomas Charlton’s biography of General James Jackson in 1809. (No, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson did not coin the phrase.) But checking into suspected wrongdoing, while a civic responsibility of those charged with public order, does not simply extend to the domestic arena, where motives of rivalry, jealousy, and revenge can gravely disrupt the fabric of ordinary life.
One of the most difficult tasks in life (and love!) is pointing out someone’s faults. Given many different ways of approaching the same issue, it is fair to ask what should we do when we become aware that someone has done something wrong?
In law, there’s not too much of a problem. To conceal a crime by not reporting it to the police is itself a crime. It’s certainly not necessary to confront the criminal, or even someone who in a case of domestic violence has overstepped themselves. But we are morally obliged to report it. Unlike God, the legal authorities are kind enough to provide special phone numbers for that.
So why would someone want to confront another person with evidence they have committed a sin? There is really only one possible reason, one possible justification for a Christian. And the second reading and the gospel point it out very clearly. It’s love.
St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome is based solidly on what Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus responded to a difficult heckler, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” [Matt 22: 37-40]. Paul simply says, “He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”
Now what’s interesting in today’s reading from Matthew is that you might expect Jesus to say, “If your brother should commit some sin against you, just forgive him.” But here he says, “Go and point out his fault, but keep it between the two of you.”
Notice that it is a wrong committed against you. Not some general wrong, like cheating on income tax or not voting. This is a special case that had to be faced in the early Christian community, which like any other, had conflicts of interest and spite and people getting out of sorts with one another. In Matthew’s community, this is the way they remembered Jesus telling them to handle such disputes. It ends with a little twist, based on the Jewish legal tradition that two witnesses had to agree on any charge brought against someone. Jesus moves that to a consideration of just two Christians united in his name about anything at all. And where they are genuinely united in his name, he is present. Jesus is the third witness: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.”.
Here Jesus is alluding to a Rabbinic teaching from the Mishnah, the ancient Jewish commentary on scripture, in the words of Rabbi Chanina: “Two who sit together and there are words of Torah between them, the Shekinah [Divine Presence] rests with them ” (Pirqe Aboth 3:3).
The prophetic stance of correction is still part of the spiritual life for Christians, especially for parents, but also for teachers, and husbands and wives, and anyone who truly cares for the moral and spiritual well-being of others. We are responsible for each other. That does not give us the liberty to go around fault-finding, shaming and blaming in public, which will certainly not win us many friends or influence anybody for long. The art of pointing the finger is to make sure that it isn’t loaded – bearing in mind that we are sinners just like anyone else, and far from perfect. But when someone has done something manifestly wrong and it concerns us (and especially others), Jesus says that we must bring it to light. Not the public limelight, but the light of truth and love.
And that’s the difference between Christian responsibility and being a “journalistic investigator” or simply a “busybody.”
So what are we to make of constant digging into every aspect of a celebrity’s or politician’s past, much less our neighbors’? Should we go looking under rocks to dig up what dirt we can find on each other? Should we revel in disclosures of wrong-doing or shameful misdeeds of the past? Should we glory in the belief that we, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, “are not like the rest of men”? [Luke 18:11].
Not according to Paul: “Love never does any wrong to the neighbor, hence love is the fulfillment of the law.” Let us go, then, in peace and love. We have some work to do.
It has been a noisy week, and a troubling one on many fronts. Just over a week ago, the nation reeled under the impact of Hurricane Harvey, which bodes well to be the most destructive and costly natural disaster in our history. Millions were transfixed by television coverage of the calamity, as Houston, Corpus Christi, and Beaumont, among smaller towns and communities, were torn asunder by the winds and then flooded. In all this, it was heartening to witness the heroic efforts of so many citizens (including undocumented immigrants) to save the desperate and helpless, even pets, from the rising water. Miraculously, there seems to have been little looting, although it seems impossible to avoid some bad behavior even in such trying situations.
The week ended with what North Korean officials describe as the greatest nuclear detonation so far in their recent program – an H-bomb, they say. One they would like to fit on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. The specter of nuclear war has risen again to haunt the world with the terrible fruit of technologically advanced conflict. And incendiary rhetoric.
To say that we live in difficult times is an understatement at the very least. But impending disaster has often been the lot of humankind, and today’s first reading from the Book of Jeremiah returns us to one of these
threatening calamities from the ancient world.
In prison, Jeremiah first complains to God that his faithful preaching of the message God entrusted to him has resulted in opposition, hatred, persecution, and now — chains. He’s had it. God fooled him, duped him the reading says, although the Hebrew is much more blunt and unflattering. Jeremiah had to trust God very much to use that tone of voice!
But the prophet has been put on a very painful spot. The Babylonians are threatening Jerusalem, and the frightened King Zedekiah wants to nail down an alliance with his pagan neighbors to defend the city. He also wants Jeremiah to predict success. But God has revealed to Jeremiah that the city will be taken and the king and nobles led away into captivity.
That’s not what Zedekiah wants to hear. It gets even worse. Jeremiah is beaten and thrown into prison by the son of the High Priest. But Jeremiah keeps right on preaching, even after the king has him freed. No one believes him, of course, and so he complains bitterly to God: “O LORD, you really screwed me, and I fell for it!” [20:7]
So the background of today’s first reading finds Jeremiah dealing with his own fear and reluctance to tell the emissaries of King Zedekiah what they do not want to hear, what the king does not want to hear, what no one wants to hear. It is not good news. And he has already paid for it by being beaten and imprisoned. Now he fears for his life. But he goes on preaching the truth, and in the end, he suffers for it. But he also knows that God will one day redeem the captives and bring the exiles home again. He will be vindicated. He testifies, “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.” [Jeremiah 31:31.]
Now if you remember back to the readings of 25th of June, the 12th Sunday of the year, what St. Paul wrote to the Christian Romans of the first century was not only that sin and death came into human experience through Adam but that grace and life also overcame them through Jesus Christ. In both cases a single human being changed everything – for the worse or for the better. On a deeper level, he , too, was talking about resisting the pressure of the majority who just happen to be wrong, just as in the story of Jeremiah.
In today’s passage, Paul changes his pitch, but not his message, exhorting the Romans not to be shaped and determined by the views of the age, the wisdom of the world, but, as he says, “to be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Then you can judge what is really God’s will — what is good, pleasing, and complete.
Back in June, Matthew’s gospel was focused on Jesus’ exhortation not to let people intimidate you, especially when it comes to speaking out fearlessly against injustice and evil. Now, several chapters later, Matthew recalls how Jesus warned his followers that anyone who wants to be his true disciple must be willing to suffer and die for that Gospel, that message of Good News.
And so it all comes around — like Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus, to preach the uncomfortable truth, to resist the easy path of violence and revenge, to oppose those who seek security in military might, alliances, and weapons of mass destruction — all this will result in fierce opposition, persecution, imprisonment, and possibly death.
Now what has any of that to do with us? Over the past year, we have been exposed to a barrage of hate-filled speech, directed against many of our own citizens and to others in the greater world. We have been tempted to withdraw assistance from the poor and needy, the aged and infirm, those who in the bible’s favored terms are most in need of aid – the orphan, widow, and resident alien in the land. Many of the calamities faced by the people of Jeremiah’s time were directly attributed to such oversight and hard-heartedness. That alone should give us a lot of reason to examine our private views and public policies.
But we also hear exhortations to be resolute and brave, despite the threat of persecution, preaching the Good News as Jesus did, and to act with compassion and generosity as so many of our citizens have wonderfully done over the past trying weeks.
For, as we hear, “this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” [Jeremiah 31:32-34]
Let us pray, then, to be transformed by the renewal of our minds, as we struggle to view our world not as the self-righteous see it, or generals or security analysts or weapons manufacturers or oil barons see it, but as God sees it. And it would be wise especially for us, as Americans — so rich, so powerful, so dangerous in the eyes of the wretched of the earth, to listen to their voices, to pay attention to the appeal of the pope for peace in the Middle East and Asia, to remember Jesus’ words to us today: “What profit would anyone show if they were to gain the whole world and ruin themselves in the process?”