Feb. 23, 2020 – Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; Psalm 103:1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
One thing I’ve learned while studying abroad is that different cultures have different mojo’s. It’s true around the world; it’s true even around our own country. The west coast is known for being laid back; the east coast is more kinetic; Midwesterners are generally known for being nice.
Or take Northern Italy. It has an industrious culture: things are organized and on time. The south of Italy is more laissez-faire: they know how to enjoy a long glass of wine. Romans, for example, have been around for 2,773 years, so they’re not looking for advice, and they might ask what your hurry is if you try to rush them.
We all know this is true on the individual level, too. Different personalities prioritize different things, and so they take different approaches to life.
In fact, this is a beautiful thing. It shows the diversity and mystery of God’s creation, and the myriad ways of taking in this adventure called life. The trouble comes when one culture or personality type steals the mic, resenting the other for their different approach and trying to convert them into “mini-me’s.”
I must admit I fell prey to this last weekend. The waitress at my table was on a different wavelength. Promptness was not on her priority list, and curtness saw no bounds on her horizon. Midwest-nice was meeting a different species, and the nice in me ran away. Probably she had no idea why I was frustrated in the first place, but boy was she ready to lock horns when I engaged.
After the dust had settled, I wished I had been a better light to her “nation.” By that, I don’t mean that I wish I’d been Midwest-nice to her. Rather, I wish I’d actually engaged her reality more selflessly and tuned in to what might be going on in her world: where she was coming from, where she was going, what she might be chewing on that day. I have no idea what was going on in her life. Maybe it was her personality; maybe it was her culture; maybe she’d had a tragic morning; or maybe she was just a jerk.
Regardless, my response to the perceived mistreatment I received from her did neither of us any good; and if she’d known I was a Christian, she wouldn’t have been requesting baptism anytime soon.
In our Gospel this Sunday, Christ continues his Sermon on the Mount. He has called his followers to be a light to the nations, as God had called them to be long ago (cf. Isaiah 49:6), and now he is teaching them what that looks like concretely.
Don’t nurse anger; don’t nurse lust; practice fidelity; keep your word. (Matthew 5:21-37). And this week we hear: be a people marked with magnanimity. Stop the cycles of retaliation and recrimination, which are so far afield from the justice God had tried to teach his people. (Matthew 5:38; Leviticus 24:20)
To the backhanded slap in the face (an egregious insult in the ancient world), offer your other cheek. (Matthew 5:39) When someone strips you of your tunic, give him your cloak as well. (Matthew 40) When a Roman soldier forces you to carry his gear for a mile (allowed by Roman law, and exemplified in Simon’s carrying of the cross), offer freely to go a second mile with him. (see Matthew 5:41) In other words, surprise the Romans, or whoever afflicts you, by your magnanimous non-escalation.
And then, start to love your enemies. Pray for them, because our Father loves them as much as he loves you. (Matthew 5:43-47) Doing this requires that we have a deep sense of just how good our heavenly Father is – how much he loves us.
The purpose of this call to non-violent witness is not simply because we are called to love everyone as Christ did – though certainly we are – but more specifically, it is so that we can be the light to them that we are called to be. If we hate our enemies, constantly resisting, fighting, retaliating, complaining, and seeking to score on them, this will be an insurmountable obstacle to our mission, which is to reveal our heavenly Father to them.
You can’t convert the Romans – New Yorkers, surfer dudes, Illini, foreigners, snowflakes, jerks, Republicans, Democrats, whoever is different from you – if you hate them. So love them first, and perhaps their ears will perk up to whose service you are in.
In this, Christ is calling us to become “perfect” – a word in the Greek that means “whole,” “complete,” “mature.” (Matthew 5:48) To be mature Christians means to be the better man, to be the better woman – to be the wedge that opens space for real dialogue to come about, not so that others can become “mini-me’s,” but so that all can come to know personally the goodness of our heavenly Father.