Seventh Sunday After Epiphany,
Donna G. Joy

LEVITICUS 19:1-2, 9-18; PSALM 119:33-40; 1 CORINTHIANS 3:10-11, 16-23; MATTHEW 5:38-48

Today’s readings speak about forgiveness. A recent article published by the Mayo Clinic makes the point that,

“Nearly everyone has been hurt by the actions or words of another. Perhaps your mother criticized your parenting skills, your colleague sabotaged a project or your partner had an affair. These wounds can leave you with lasting feelings of anger, bitterness, or even vengeance. But if you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude, and joy. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.”

I find this interesting, because these words of wisdom coming from the world of science help clarify why this mandate to forgive (which is rooted in the teachings of our faith) is important for our overall well-being. If we are unable to forgive, then our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being is at risk. Forgiveness, in fact, is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge, which otherwise infect our overall well-being.

In ‘The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our world, the authors Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu point out, “The quality of human life on the planet is nothing more than the sum total of our daily interactions with one another. Forgiveness is the way we set those interactions right.” And this, I believe, is true, because if we are not right with each other, then we’re not at peace with God or ourselves. Although we live in a culture that reveres the power and autonomy of the individual, this is in fact a myth, because we are intimately connected within the context of a shared humanity, and where forgiveness is lacking something deep and serious is broken.

And, of course, letting go of anger and the desire for revenge can be hugely challenging. Each story that we may think about in relation to the act of forgiveness, points out: (1) a decision to forgive, made by the injured party, (2) a sense of inner peace that it inspires, and (3) countless ways in which it put a stop to the cycle of hate and revenge. For many of us the one who may spring immediately to mind is Nelson Mandela who, after spending 27 years in prison for trying to end white-minority rule through violence, became a symbol of peace by reconciling with the individuals who had been the instruments of oppression during his captivity. (Decision. Inner peace. Stop the cycle.) The positive consequences of this act of forgiveness are, I am sure, beyond our ability to imagine.

I recently read an article about Steven McDonald who was a young police officer in 1986 when he was shot by a teenager in New York’s Central Park, an incident that left him paralyzed.

He writes, “I forgave the shooter, because I believe the only thing worse than receiving a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart.” While the younger man was serving his prison sentence, McDonald corresponded with him, hoping that one day the two could work together to demonstrate forgiveness and nonviolence. Unfortunately, the young man died in a motorcycle accident three days after his release; but McDonald continued to travel throughout the country, delivering his message.

Indeed, at the very root of love is the power of redemption, and this – I believe – lies at the center of our readings today: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. These words from the Book of Leviticus define the very essence of who we are as the people of God, and what we are called to be: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

But the big question here is, “What does it mean to be holy as God is holy?” Richard Elliott Friedman in his commentary suggests that everything in this chapter that follows answers this question. He suggests that: If one had to choose only one chapter out of the Torah to make known, it might well be this one. And he says this because more than any other chapter it merges the major commandments – weaves them in and through the entire chapter – making the point that, “to be holy as God is holy” is to live faithfully according to these commandments; that is, to live lives committed to sacrifice, justice, caring for the poor, the lonely, and the sick; caring for those who are vulnerable, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, loving those who have come from away (this last one, it seems to me, is being fulfilled - even this very weekend - in places like Emerson where people are finding a safe haven for those who are displaced...)

But to reel this back into our focus for today... One important way to be holy as God is holy, is to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and to live according to this commandment requires a commitment to forgiveness when we feel hurt, betrayed, disappointed by those with whom we share our lives. And then, along comes Jesus, who not only embodies this teaching, but is the fulfillment of this teaching. Through his death on the cross, and his attitude toward those who put him there, we can recognize that he lived, and died, faithfully according to his own teaching.

The teachings in this morning’s Gospel are known as the ‘Antitheses’ where Jesus is referring to the Mosaic Law, and yet calling the disciples to a higher standard of belief, motivation, and observance: 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.” Keep in mind the context in which Jesus is offering this challenge. The world in which he lived was as distressed and conflicted as ours. Evil was as real then as it is now. Relationships with neighbours and governments, co-workers and family members were complex as they are today. In Jesus’ time, a Roman soldier could actually order a Jew to carry his pack for a mile whether that Jew wanted to or not.

So, in hearing what he said, Jesus’ audience would have been shocked. The desire for retributive justice or more simply vengeance – “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – was very much at work in the lives and the hearts of the people. What Jesus said carried the application of the law much farther than anyone could be expected to go in ordinary day to day living. But here again, we are reminded of the words from Leviticus, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” It seems that Jesus is taking this call to holiness to an extreme that would create a high level of discomfort for the many who longed for revenge on their oppressors.

But, as Jesus has lived and died, to love one’s enemies does not simply mean to experience an emotion of affection for them; it means to be committed to their well-being – in prayer and in action. Loving our enemies is a decision . . . not a feeling. And, as I have already pointed out, Jesus not only taught this, but lived and died accordingly – for us. As he hung, dying on a cross, he prayed, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” As we have been forgiven by Jesus on the cross, we are empowered to offer that transformative/redemptive gift to others.

In Desmond Tutu and his daughter’s book, they write extensively about the cycle of revenge as opposed to the cycle of forgiveness. They make the point that the revenge cycle simply leads to an ongoing cycle of injury, hurt, pain, betrayal and loss (e.g. I hurt you, you retaliate, I then retaliate, and maybe by now a number of people have chosen one side or another...), while the forgiveness cycle leads to forgiveness which results in a subsequent decision to renew or release the relationship. (Release: re: abuse.)

We all know that forgiveness is not easy. It flies in the face of all the natural human feelings that lead to revenge, retaliation, retribution, vengeance; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Evolutionary biologists suggest that we are hardwired to seek revenge and hurt back when we are hurt. This is how our ancestors survived when confronted by a threat, and this has become our nature in response to a threat. As Darwin spoke of the survival of the fittest, he was referring to our instinct to hit back harder if and when we ourselves are hit. But while there is no doubt that revenge is part of our evolutionary biology, there is also no doubt that we are hardwired to forgive and reconnect. Primatologists show that even monkeys indicate a need to forgive. They extend their hands to one another and become agitated when the group is not in harmony. They seem to know instinctively that they are intimately connected to one another rather that autonomous, isolated beings.

So, although the evolution of the human species has often sought revenge for the purposes of survival, we find in our readings this morning that as natural as this may feel, we are, in fact, called to forgiveness. It is what we are called to do if we call ourselves Christians, that is, followers of Christ. If we are his followers, then we are called to try, to the best of our ability, to live by the principles Jesus taught; the principles through which he lived and died. And at the heart of this teaching is forgiveness.

Martin Luther King Jr., in the midst of deep and profound racism and hatred, wrote, “... love has within it a redemptive power. You must keep on loving people and keep loving them... There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

And so, as you reflect on this today within the context of your own lives, perhaps you are dealing with situations that challenge your faith and your ability to make that decision to forgive. We all need to pray for the strength to be faithful followers of Christ; to make this virtue an integral part of our lives; to love our enemies – to be committed to their well-being – in prayer and in action. This, I believe, is what it looks like to be holy as God is holy. At the very root of love is the power to forgive; the power of redemption. And again, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., let us pray:

Oh God, help us in our lives and in all of our attitudes, to work out this controlling force of love — let us join together in a great fellowship of love and bow down at the feet of Jesus. Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen.