The readings for the 7 Sunday in Ordinary Time are available HERE
Sometimes Jesus seems to ask a lot of us. He can be a very demanding teacher. Today, for instance, He answers a question which nobody had asked Him. The question is, “how can we be children of our Father in heaven?” The answer Jesus gave His disciples was that obeying the rules they had learnt as children was not enough. He expects more of us. What they had learned was “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. In other words, if somebody damages you or your property, you are entitled to respond to her or to him in the same way. But that is not what that law originally meant. It is known as the lex talionis, or the law of retaliation, according to which a punishment should resemble the original offense. But it was a law which was meant to moderate vengeance. It limited the way we react when somebody damages us or our family or our property. It gave people the right to retaliate – but no more. In its simplest form, it meant that, if someone blinded you in one eye, you could do the same to him, but no more. You could not blind him in both eyes. If someone knocked one of your teeth out, you could knock one of his teeth out, but only one. If someone stole your sheep, this law meant you could demand a sheep in return – but only one. Jesus and his disciples had been brought up with the same teachings, the same rules, so He understood exactly how they had been taught to behave, but here He is challenging the idea of retaliating. He asks us not to obey our natural instinct, not to demand our rights all the time, but to go beyond our rights in love.
He reminds His disciples that they have been told to love their neighbour, but to hate their enemy. But He asks them to go beyond that teaching; He asks them to love their enemies. The only way to understand this is to ask yourself, “do I have any enemies?” You must give a truthful answer. You may think you have no enemies now, but what about your past life? Have you ever had an enemy? I suppose an enemy is someone who has damaged you or your family or your property, to such a serious degree that you cannot forgive them. Has it ever happened to you? Jesus is telling us, as He told His disciples, that, if we want to be called the children of God, we have to learn to forgive people who have done terrible things to us.We must learn to love them.
In the last few days, Deacon Christian has been to Denmark for the annual retreat for priests and deacons. I could not go, because I still have so many medical appointments after my stay in hospital at Christmas. But last year, I did go. The Bishop of Aberdeen in Scotland gave the retreat last year, and he said we could see him individually if we thought it would be useful. I was the first to take advantage of his offer, and I admitted to him that I have an enormous spiritual problem. I told him there is someone who has done me so much damage that I cannot forgive him. That means I do not deserve to be called one of God’s children, because I am unable to forgive the person I told the Bishop about. The Bishop agreed that the person I cannot forgive had done really terrible things to me; in fact he was quite shocked. But he said something which really surprised me, and I wonder if it will help you as much as it helped me.
Bishop Hugh asked me to recall the words Jesus said as He hung on the Cross on Calvary, just before He died. He shouted out, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”. The Bishop said these words had haunted him all his life. He had thought about them and prayed about them many times. What he now believes is that Jesus asked His Father to forgive the people who had crucified Him because He couldn’t. Jesus could not forgive those who had persecuted, condemned and killed Him. This is not an official teaching of the Church, but it is the fruit of the prayer of a holy bishop who has struggled to understand those words. It was like switching on a light in my soul. I had been feeling incredibly guilty because I could not forgive a person who had harmed me. I had believed that I was disqualified from being a genuine child of God, because I was refusing to forgive. But the reality is that I was unable to forgive. What the bishop said made me feel that Jesus is very close to me in my inability to forgive. Perhaps I will forgive one day, but at the moment it’s not possible. But that doesn’t mean I’m not one of God’s children. It means I’m an imperfect child of God, one who is trying to be perfect, but I now know that being imperfect does not disqualify me in God’s eyes. If God the Father heard the cry of Jesus on the cross, perhaps He will hear my humble prayer when I say, “Father, forgive this person, because I am still not able to forgive. Help me to forgive him”. In today’s Gospel Jesus asks His disciples to go beyond insisting on their rights. He asks them to be spiritually “bigger” than that. He asks me to be “bigger” than that. He asks you to be “bigger” than that. It may be difficult, but it is not impossible.
Fr. Peter Fleetwood