February 20, 2022 – Mercy or Vengeance?

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Recording

Readings || Lecturas

Previous Years: I have not preached on these readings before.

Preached at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA

English

Despite being a born and true American, I am deeply skeptical of the concept of rights (that is, r-i-g-h-t-s). For one thing, rights do not have a satisfactory philosophical definition – there is absolutely no agreement on what they are, where they come from, and what constitutes the definitive list of rights. Instead, the notion of rights seems to be a stand-in for the things that we think we deserve – but why we deserve those things and whose responsibility it is to provide them is, again, completely undefined.

Far more importantly, though, rights do not seem to accord with Christian values or practices. A focus on rights always seems to devolve into a focus on myself and what I deserve. They become a temptation to selfishness, a temptation directly contrary to the fundamental selflessness of Christianity. Instead, the more ancient notion of justice seems to be a far more Christian (that is, selfless) approach to the same topics. Justice asks “What do I owe do others?” while rights ask “What is owed to me?”


Understanding this distinction is the only way we can begin to approach our Gospel today. If we think in terms of rights, we will reject Jesus entirely. If a person strikes me, of course I have the right to strike them back. If a person steals from me, of course I have the right to take back my stuff and punish them for the theft. If someone hates me, of course I have the right to hate them; if they curse me, of course I have the right to curse them; if they mistreat me, of course I have the right to mistreat them. Jesus and rights are diametrically opposed here.

But if we think in terms of justice, there might be a way to reconcile the two. Granted, all of these offenders have, themselves, failed to act with justice, but we do not have control over them, only over our own responses. To that end, what do I owe to the person who hates me or curses me or mistreats me? What do I owe to the person who strikes me or robs from me?

The ancient pagan philosophers said justice is perfect fairness, without leniency or excess. They said we are required to do good to those who do good to us, certainly, but that we are also obliged to do harm to those who harm us. We must strike those who strike us. Otherwise, if consequences are not proportional to crimes, society will descend into corruption or chaos.

And yet, Jesus changes things. He acknowledges the natural justice of doing good to those who do us good, but he contends that we ought not to harm those who harm us. That is, he requires that his followers show mercy. Does this mean that Jesus is asking us to abandon justice?

Not quite. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” This is justice. We have been shown incredible mercy, insofar as Jesus died for us even though we were still sinners and did not deserve it. If we have been shown mercy, then justice requires that we show mercy in return. But since God needs nothing from us, and God has not sinned against us, we cannot show that mercy to Him, so he asks that we reflect that mercy to others. In other words, we are caught between two conflicting forms of justice: natural justice requires that we harm those who harm us; supernatural justice requires that we show mercy just as we ourselves have been shown mercy. Because the mercy shown to us by God is infinitely greater than the harm done to us by human beings, mercy always wins out for the Christian. If we do not show mercy to others, then we are essentially rejecting the mercy shown to us.

Notice, of course, that this is more than court room mercy, where we simply do less harm to someone who has harmed us. God showed us a different kind of mercy; he showed us merciful love, meaning that he not only did not harm us, but he did incredibly generous things for us. This is what Jesus requires of a Christian: that we respond to harm with generosity and love, just as God himself responded to sin with the infinite generosity and love of the Cross.


“Love your enemies and do good to them” may be the most difficult of all the teachings of Jesus, and we all struggle with it. I hear about it all the time in the confessional: the unwillingness or inability to forgive, the desire to have revenge, the unending cycle of returning harm for harm. But we have to take this teaching of Jesus deadly seriously. We must pray for our enemies. We must bless those who curse us. We must do good to those who harm us. Justice demands it. It is not optional.

To really drive this point home, I would like to connect it to two rather controversial teachings of the Church, that is, the teachings on the death penalty and nuclear weapons.

One way to generalize the Gospel today is to say that Jesus forbids Christians to seek revenge. We are never allowed to act out of a desire to return harm for harm. Never. The way we respond to something, including a grave sin against us, can never be motivated by hatred or anger. Never. Instead, what we owe the person who has sinned against us is love. Every Christian action is motivated by love, remembering of course that love is not a feeling, but a choice for the good of the other. For example, the one instance in which Christianity allows the taking of human life is in the defense of the innocent. And yet, even in this case, the goal is not to harm the aggressor, which would be avoided if possible, but to protect the innocent.

Consider, then, the death penalty. If Christianity can only justify the taking of life in the defense of innocent life, then the only instance in which the death penalty is justified is if there is a person whose very existence threatens innocent life. But these conditions no longer really exist in any country with maximum security prisons. Then what is the purpose of the death penalty? In so many cases, it seems to exist so that families of victims can be given a feeling of justice, making it nothing more than state-sponsored revenge. But the Lord forbids us to seek revenge. Even thinking of the death penalty as a deterrent is really just saying that we are going to communicate to potential criminals that if they kill people, we will kill them back. But again, this is vengeance, which the Lord forbids. So why keep the death penalty on the books at all? The horrifying implication of being Christian is that if someone kills your loved one, you are not allowed to kill them back, because God’s mercy is greater even than murder.

And now that we are contemplating another Cold War with Russia, we may need to consider nuclear weapons again, something the U.S. Bishops wrote about in the 1980s and something that the Archbishop of Santa Fe just published a new reflection on this year. What is our motivation for maintaining a massive stockpile of weapons, the only conceivable purpose of which is to indiscriminately wipe out major population centers? We know that Catholic belief only allows for wars of self-defense, so we know we cannot justify these weapons on offensive grounds – that is, we can never morally strike first. Given that, our country says that we maintain these weapons for deterrence, for mutually assured destruction, to let other countries know that if they kill our people, we will kill their people back. But, again, what is this attitude? It is vengeance, which Jesus forbids to Christians. If that is the case, if we cannot strike first or strike in retribution, why keep the weapons around at all? The horrifying implication of being Christian is that, even if someone nukes our cities, our Lord tells us not to nuke them back, because his mercy is greater even than a nuclear attack.


My friends, I am not a huge proponent of political advocacy from the pulpit and that is not what this is. It would be hard to vote against nuclear weapons or the death penalty today anyway, without also voting for abortion and gender confusion, so we are often stuck with letter writing, which is not particularly effective. Instead, I bring up these two teachings of the Church because they are so obviously extreme in our minds. The idea that we would not retaliate in like manner against a family murder or a nuclear attack is ludicrous. But Christianity is also ludicrous. Christianity is radical. Christianity demands that you think like God, not like the world. And if Christians are forbidden from seeking vengeance in such extreme cases as murder or nuclear war, then how seriously do you think Jesus takes our responsibility to forgive our parents, siblings, or spouses who have betrayed us? If we do not forgive, pray for, and bless those who have harmed us, if we do not, in justice, pay forward God’s infinitely merciful love, then we are rejecting his merciful love. And if we reject his merciful love, then we reject our salvation.

Español

A pesar de ser un estadounidense nato y verdadero, soy profundamente escéptico del concepto de derechos. Por un lado, los derechos no tienen una definición filosófica satisfactoria: no hay absolutamente ningún acuerdo sobre qué son, de dónde vienen y qué constituye la lista definitiva de derechos. En cambio, la noción de derechos parece ser un sustituto de las cosas que creemos que merecemos, pero por qué merecemos esas cosas y de quién es la responsabilidad de proporcionarlas es, nuevamente, completamente indefinido.

Sin embargo, lo que es mucho más importante es que los derechos no parecen estar de acuerdo con los valores o prácticas cristianos. Un enfoque en los derechos siempre parece recaer en un enfoque en mí mismo y en lo que yo merezco. Se convierten en una tentación al egoísmo, una tentación directamente contraria al desinterés fundamental del cristianismo. En cambio, la noción más antigua de justicia parece ser un enfoque mucho más cristiano (es decir, desinteresado) de los mismos temas. La justicia pregunta “¿Qué les debo a los demás?” mientras que los derechos preguntan “¿Qué se me debe?”


Comprender esta distinción es la única forma en que podemos comenzar a acercarnos a nuestro Evangelio hoy. Si pensamos en términos de derechos, rechazaremos a Jesús por completo. Si una persona me golpea, por supuesto que tengo derecho a devolverle el golpe. Si una persona me roba, por supuesto que tengo derecho a recuperar mis cosas y castigarla por el robo. Si alguien me odia, por supuesto que tengo derecho a odiarlo; si me maldicen, por supuesto que tengo derecho a maldecirlos; si me maltratan, por supuesto que tengo derecho a maltratarlos. Jesús y los derechos son diametralmente opuestos aquí.

Pero si pensamos en términos de justicia, podría haber una manera de reconciliar los dos. Por supuesto, todos estos delincuentes no han actuado con justicia, pero no tenemos control sobre ellos, solo sobre nuestras propias respuestas. A tal fin, ¿qué le debo a la persona que me odia o me maldice o me maltrata? ¿Qué le debo a la persona que me golpea o me roba?

Los antiguos filósofos paganos decían que la justicia es la equidad perfecta, sin indulgencia ni exceso. Decían que estamos obligados a hacer el bien a los que nos hacen el bien, ciertamente, pero que también estamos obligados a hacer el mal a los que nos hacen mal. Debemos golpear a los que nos golpean. De lo contrario, si las consecuencias no son proporcionales a los delitos, la sociedad caerá en la corrupción o el caos.

Sin embargo, Jesús cambia las cosas. Reconoce la justicia natural de hacer el bien a los que nos hacen bien, pero afirma que no debemos dañar a los que nos hacen daño. Es decir, requiere que sus seguidores muestren misericordia. ¿Significa esto que Jesús nos está pidiendo que abandonemos la justicia?

No exactamente. “Sean misericordiosos, como su Padre es misericordioso.” Esto es justicia. Se nos ha mostrado una misericordia increíble, en la medida en que Jesús murió por nosotros a pesar de que todavía éramos pecadores y no lo merecíamos. Si se nos ha mostrado misericordia, entonces la justicia requiere que mostremos misericordia a cambio. Pero como Dios no necesita nada de nosotros, y Dios no ha pecado contra nosotros, no podemos mostrarle esa misericordia a Él, por lo que nos pide que reflejemos esa misericordia a los demás. En otras palabras, estamos atrapados entre dos formas de justicia en conflicto: la justicia natural requiere que perjudiquemos a quienes nos perjudiquen; la justicia sobrenatural requiere que seamos misericordiosos tal como a nosotros mismos se nos ha mostrado misericordia. Porque la misericordia que Dios nos muestra es infinitamente mayor que el daño que nos hacen los seres humanos, la misericordia siempre gana para el cristiano. Si no mostramos misericordia a los demás, entonces esencialmente estamos rechazando la misericordia que se nos muestra.

Tenga en cuenta, por supuesto, que esto es más que misericordia en la corte, donde simplemente hacemos menos daño a alguien que nos ha hecho daño. Dios nos mostró un tipo diferente de misericordia; nos mostró un amor misericordioso, lo que significa que no solo no nos hizo daño, sino que hizo cosas increíblemente generosas por nosotros. Esto es lo que Jesús exige de un cristiano: que respondamos al daño con generosidad y amor, así como Dios mismo respondió al pecado con la infinita generosidad y amor de la Cruz.


“Amen a sus enemigos, [y] hagan el bien” puede ser la más difícil de todas las enseñanzas de Jesús, y todos luchamos con ella. Lo escucho todo el tiempo en el confesionario: la falta de voluntad o la incapacidad para perdonar, el deseo de vengarse, el ciclo interminable de devolver daño por daño. Pero tenemos que tomar muy en serio esta enseñanza de Jesús. Debemos orar por nuestros enemigos. Debemos bendecir a los que nos maldicen. Debemos hacer el bien a los que nos hacen daño. La justicia lo exige. No es opcional.

Para recalcar este punto, voy a recordarnos que recientemente tuvimos un tiroteo en nuestra comunidad hispana en Ferndale, que las pandillas se involucraron y que parece haber habido un tiroteo de venganza unos días después. Esto es justicia natural. Esto es ojo por ojo. Esto es darle a la gente lo que se merece.

Pero esto no es cristianismo. El tiroteo fue horrible. Fue trágico. Nadie merece morir así. Pero como cristianos, tampoco podemos vengarnos nunca. Nuestro Señor nos dice que debemos amar a nuestros enemigos y orar por los que nos hacen daño. Incluso en este caso. Incluso en el asesinato.

Así de extremo es el cristianismo. Incluso en el horrible y trágico asesinato, los cristianos no buscamos venganza, sino que tratamos de perdonar. Y si digo esto sobre el asesinato, ¿cuánto más crees que me refiero a perdonar a los padres, hermanos y cónyuges que nos han hecho daño? Si no puede buscar venganza contra un asesino, los problemas que tenga con su familia y amigos son pequeños en comparación. Perdonan y hacen el bien a los que les han hecho daño, así como Jesús les ha perdonado a ustedes. Si no perdonamos, rezamos y bendecimos a quienes nos han hecho daño, si no retribuimos, en justicia, el amor infinitamente misericordioso de Dios, entonces estamos rechazando su amor misericordioso. Y si rechazamos su amor misericordioso, entonces rechazamos nuestra salvación.

Spanish 2nd Half, Original English

“Love your enemies and do good to them” may be the most difficult of all the teachings of Jesus, and we all struggle with it. I hear about it all the time in the confessional: the unwillingness or inability to forgive, the desire to have revenge, the unending cycle of returning harm for harm. But we have to take this teaching of Jesus deadly seriously. We must pray for our enemies. We must bless those who curse us. We must do good to those who harm us. Justice demands it. It is not optional.

To really drive this point home, I would like to remind us that we recently had a shooting in our Hispanic community up in Ferndale, that gangs got involved, and that there seems to have been a revenge shooting a few days later. This is natural justice. This is an eye for an eye. This is giving people what they deserve.

But this is not Christianity. The shooting was horrible. It was tragic. No one deserves to die like that. But as Christians, we can also never take revenge. Our Lord tells us that we must love our enemies and pray for those who harm us. Even in this case. Even in murder.

That is how extreme Christianity is. Even in horrible, tragic murder we Christians do not seek vengeance, but instead try to forgive. And if I am saying this about murder, then how much more do you think I mean it about forgiving parents, siblings, and spouses who have harmed us? If you cannot seek revenge against a murderer, whatever problems you have with your family and friends are tiny in comparison. Forgive and do good to those who have harmed you, just as Jesus has forgiven you. If we do not forgive, pray for, and bless those who have harmed us, if we do not, in justice, pay forward God’s infinitely merciful love, then we are rejecting his merciful love. And if we reject his merciful love, then we reject our salvation.

2 Comments

  1. rosmri says:

    This is the clearest reading I have ever understood about Justice. Thank you for this enlightening letter.

  2. This homily was wonderful. It reminds us (sometimes forgotten) difference between justice and rights and what walk Jesus asks us to take. Thanks so much.

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