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2/19/17 Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time - Fr. Damian

A part of the Gospel that is perhaps the most difficult for us to follow is the Lord's teaching to love our enemies. We can love our neighbor. We can love the disadvantaged. We can love those we perceive to be inferior to us. But to love the enemy, the one who intentionally harmed us, is very difficult to do.

The Lord addresses something we have all felt at one time or another, the desire for revenge. There is a popular saying of several years ago that stated, "Don't get mad, get even!" Jesus quotes a section from the Old Testament Book of Exodus, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Many people use that phrase today to justify retaliation when they claim, "The Bible says, 'an eye for an eye.'" That may be what the Bible says but that is not its meaning.

This verse comes from a lengthier section which teaches that if a person harms another in a fight, he shall give "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, burn for burn, wound for wound." The sense of the passage is that if someone should damage your servant's eye, you are not allowed to damage both eyes of his servant. Only an eye for an eye. If someone should knock your servant's tooth out, you were not allowed to knock out all of his teeth. Only a tooth for a tooth. In other words, this teaching was meant to cap conflict and prevent escalation. Gradually, however, people began to twist it into an endorsement of revenge.

We all know what happens when people get into the business of revenge. A person does another wrong. The other party retaliates. The individual responds with a fresh injury, then the perpetrator strikes back. Then comes a counter punch. The other hits back and it goes on until a feud is born like the Hatfields and McCoys, a feud that continues long after the original hurt is forgotten.

This is the point of today's Gospel. The Lord is teaching us that the only way to end the cycle of revenge and retaliation is for someone to pull the plug on it. That is called forgiveness.

The word "forgiveness" sounds weak and anemic at first. But is it? Which requires more courage, inner strength, maturity and spiritual muscle, to strike back or to end the conflict? Striking back is easy. It happens in every school yard in the world. It takes nerve and spiritual virility to forgive. Any child can strike back. It takes an adult to forgive. Consider what the world and what our personal world would be like if we never forgave, if we remembered every hurt and every slight. We would end up in an emotional and spiritual gridlock of resentment, spending precious hours of our day planning to get even.

As a matter of fact, we do a great deal of forgiving all the time. We forgive and forget many things almost automatically. The Lord tells us to do that consciously. Otherwise, hate will consume us and destroy our spiritual life.

There are people who choose not to forgive. It is as though they have Alzheimer's disease in reverse. They remember everything. If we refuse to forgive others, we do not really harm them but we do hurt ourselves.

We naturally resent a person who does wrong to us. The Lord does not tell us that we should like it. But our response should not be fueled by the urge to strike back, but by whatever will defuse the conflict so both persons can proceed with their lives.

When a child does wrong, parents don't try to get even. They react in a way that will teach and help the child through what is sometimes called "tough love." The decision we make not to strike back at those who do us wrong requires that we be the adult in that situation. To learn to do that is both a skill and a grace. And it takes time.

Jesus tells us that we must become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. The willingness to forgive is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in us. Our starting to forgive as God forgives us is a sign that we are becoming like the God we love.

Forgiveness may or may not bring healing to others. It always heals us and sets us free.

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