Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Monday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
June 13, 2016
1 Kings 21:1-16, Ps 5, Mt 5:38-42
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- At first glance, today’s readings are bound to make us physically and spiritually nauseous. In the first reading, we encounter the story of Naboth, whose vineyard Ahab, the king of Samaria, coveted. Ahab told Naboth, “Give me your vineyard to be my vegetable garden, since it is close by, next to my house. I will give you a better vineyard in exchange, or, if you prefer, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth refused, not because of selfishness, but because he believed that it was God who had given that land to him and his family to be treasured almost as a covenantal relationship: “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral heritage.” Ahab was so disturbed and angry he lay down on his bed and refused to eat. When his wife Jezebel asked why he wasn’t eating and found out the reason, she set herself on a plan of calculated evil to obtain the vineyard, writing letters in the king’s name and with his seal calling on the “elders and nobles” to secure two scoundrels to frame Naboth for the capital crime of having “cursed God and king.” The nobles went along with this abomination, Naboth was stoned to death, and Jezebel told her husband to go and acquire Naboth’s familial vineyard. The whole scene points to the terrible ugliness of wickedness and corruption, of those in positions of authority abusing their offices to trample on those, especially the worldly insignificant, who impede their insatiable will to have more power, popularity and property.
- And yet, when we read the first reading through the prism of the Gospel, it seems at first glance that Jesus is calling us not to resist this corruption and injustice but to enable it. Jesus tells us, “Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.” It would appear that Jesus is saying, when an evil corrupt King asks you for your ancestral land, give it to him, and give him your house, and your clothes and everything else besides. That’s certainly the way some people have misinterpreted this Gospel passage, but that’s not what Jesus is affirming. Jesus’ message is highly challenging all the same — he’s calling us to live by his standards, to have our righteousness surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees as we heard last week, to go beyond a pagan sense of justice and love for those who love us, as we’ll hear tomorrow — but he’s not telling us to become a punching bag or become defenseless victims before those who would seek to harm us or others.
- To grasp Jesus’ message, we first need to see the way he introduces it. He cites the “law of talion,” something that goes back to the Hammurabi Code of the 23rd century BC, but that was incorporated into the Mosaic law: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This was an ancient limit on vengeance, against a tribal notion of vendetta, that would prevent the escalation of an offense. Prior to this principle becoming popular, if someone killed your ox, your whole family would have a vendetta against that person’s whole family and there was a risk that much worse would be done and for generations. Jesus, however, wanted to give us a different principle for the limitation of vengeance: love in imitation of the sacrificial, other-centered, merciful love of God in whose image we were made. When Jesus tells us to offer no resistance to one who is evil, he’s telling us not to be consumed with fighting back. If someone backhands us on the right cheek, rather than strike him in the solar plexus, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, a maneuver that would prevent him from backhanding the other side and affirm our dignity without hurting someone we’re supposed to love, even if he’s not loving us. When he tells us to give our cloak to someone who wants our tunic, he’s telling us to sacrifice for him out of love even what we would need (Jews would have a second tunic, but not a second cloak). When he tells us to walk a second mile rather than just one in compulsory service in delivering packages, he tells us not to do so with resentment but to volunteer to go a second mile out of love. When he instructs us “Give to the one who asks of you and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow,” he’s forming us to imitate his own divine generosity. Jesus’ principle was not merely to prevent the escalation of violence, but to respond to evil with good, to respond to selfishness with selflessness, to respond to provocation with pardon, to respond to want with beneficence. This is, of course, what he himself did. When the Roman soldiers slapped one cheek and mocked him, he didn’t retaliate. When they stripped him of his cloak, he gave them his tunic and all his other clothes as well. When they pressed him to carry the cross, he carried it not only to Calvary but carries it still through time. When people asked of him, he gave a full measure, packed down, overflowing into his lap. In this, he calls us to follow him, to love others as he has loved us first, to live according to his standards.
- So back to Naboth, Ahab and Jezebel and to all victims of corruption and violence today. Is Jesus telling us to let the mafia, or terrorists, or megalomaniacal public officials run wild and take whatever we have? No. In Naboth’s case, that would have been violating the covenant he had made with God. But he is telling us three things. First, to leave justice to God, something that we will see he’ll do with Ahab by sending the prophet Elijah. Second, not to let a worse evil beset us than even losing what is rightfully ours: missing the opportunity to love, to forgive, to become more and more like our Trinitarian God. As we’ll be hearing tomorrow, Jesus calls us to retaliate to those who have made themselves our enemies with love, to those who are persecuting us with prayer. Even if people seek to take our lands, clothes, and time and to take advantage of our generosity, they can’t take our soul unless we give it to them, and that’s what’s most at stake in any such circumstance that Jesus describes. Third, if we’re going to defend our rights, we should do so not out of selfishness but real care — love — for others who are hurt by selfishness or physical abuse against others or using others or manipulating others for what they don’t need.
- Today we celebrate the feast of a great saint who sought to live by Jesus’ standards, whose life was a commentary on the Sacred Scriptures of which he was his age’s greatest scholar and preacher, who was humble enough to suffer difficulties and neglect by uniting everything with the Lord. He preached most often on the passage to “seek first the Kingdom of God and his holiness,” knowing everything else would be given besides. He constantly sought a greater assimilation with God. When he was a priest and Scripture professor in Coimbra as an Augustinian canon, he met the first Franciscan friars who were going to Morocco to take the place of other friars who had been martyred, he sought and obtained permission to follow them to take up what he thought was a fuller union with Jesus and his mission for the salvation of the world. He was open to the Lord’s will, even when it seemed contradictory, like when he caught deathly ill on the beach of Morocco and needed to return to Europe, but it was in Europe that the Lord would give him the chance for a different type of witness and work for the salvation of the world. Both in humbly washing pots and pans in Forli or preaching all over Italy and France, he helped others to know Christ’s standards and to adopt them. He would earn the nickname of the “hammer of heretics” by debating in city squares and elsewhere those propagating errors and bringing them and so many other listeners to conversion. He was a great peacemaker, reminding people through his own holiness that Christ would give them the power to stop the vicious cycle and to replace fighting with forgiving, because if he had forgiven them their sins, they could with that mercy forgive others.
- And the source of his Christ-like conformity was entering into Holy Communion with him through the Eucharist. St. Anthony was involved in some of the greatest Eucharistic miracles of all time, which seem legendary but they’re all so well attested that even though they seem too fanciful to be true, one still is led to believe them, like the time he, in response to a challenge from somebody denying Catholic faith in the Real Presence, prayerfully got an famished ox to descend in adoration of Jesus in the monstrance rather than eat. He had such a confidence in Jesus in the Eucharist that he knew nothing was impossible, and if creatures deprived of reason could be transformed, then everyone could come to be conformed to the Lamb. The Eucharist was the source of his sanctity and all of his apostolic fruitfulness.
- Today he would doubtless tell us that, based on the readings, that living as Christians, living by Christ’s standards and following his example, is not easy, but that God doesn’t leave us along with demanding words. He gives us himself to help us meet his standards, and he offers us his mercy to help us never give up. Despite our sins having killed him, here he willingness goes far more than an extra mile and allows us to consume him. Here he gives us not just a tunic or cloak but his very own body, blood, soul and divinity. Here he gives to the one who asks. And then he tell us “Do this in memory of me.” Learning from the example of St. Anthony, let us receive Christ today with faith that with him inside of us, we can not only live by Jesus’ words but find in them truly the Good News that will lead us and the world to salvation.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
next to the palace of Ahab, king of Samaria.
Ahab said to Naboth,
since it is close by, next to my house.
I will give you a better vineyard in exchange, or,
if you prefer, I will give you its value in money.”
Naboth answered him, “The LORD forbid
that I should give you my ancestral heritage.”
Ahab went home disturbed and angry at the answer
Naboth the Jezreelite had made to him:
“I will not give you my ancestral heritage.”
Lying down on his bed, he turned away from food and would not eat.
“Why are you so angry that you will not eat?”
He answered her,
and said to him, ‘Sell me your vineyard, or,
if you prefer, I will give you a vineyard in exchange.’
But he refused to let me have his vineyard.”
His wife Jezebel said to him,
“A fine ruler over Israel you are indeed!
Eat and be cheerful.
I will obtain the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite for you.”
having sealed them with his seal,
sent them to the elders and to the nobles
who lived in the same city with Naboth.
This is what she wrote in the letters:
“Proclaim a fast and set Naboth at the head of the people.
Next, get two scoundrels to face him
and accuse him of having cursed God and king.
Then take him out and stone him to death.”
His fellow citizens—the elders and nobles who dwelt in his city—
did as Jezebel had ordered them in writing,
through the letters she had sent them.
They proclaimed a fast and placed Naboth at the head of the people.
Two scoundrels came in and confronted him with the accusation,
“Naboth has cursed God and king.”
And they led him out of the city and stoned him to death.
Then they sent the information to Jezebel
that Naboth had been stoned to death.
she said to Ahab,
“Go on, take possession of the vineyard
of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you,
because Naboth is not alive, but dead.”
On hearing that Naboth was dead, Ahab started off on his way
down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite,
to take possession of it.
PS 5:2-3AB, 4B-6A, 6B-7
Hearken to my words, O LORD,
attend to my sighing.
Heed my call for help,
my king and my God!
R. Lord, listen to my groaning.
At dawn I bring my plea expectantly before you.
For you, O God, delight not in wickedness;
no evil man remains with you;
the arrogant may not stand in your sight.
R. Lord, listen to my groaning.
You hate all evildoers.
You destroy all who speak falsehood;
The bloodthirsty and the deceitful
the LORD abhors.
R. Lord, listen to my groaning.
“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one to him as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand him your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go with him for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.”