By the Rev Msgr Harry Entwistle
Sunday 19 February, 2017
St Ninians & St Chads Church, Maylands
Our first reading contains the second of the great commandments that Jesus taught his disciples. The first one from the Book of Deuteronomy is about our need to love God, while this second one is about loving our neighbour as ourselves. Both are part of Judaism, but Jesus connected them, making them equal.
Leviticus is part of the Jewish writings called the Holiness Code, intended to show God’s people how to be holy. The word ‘holy’ doesn’t mean being pious. It means being separate. God’s holy people are those who remain separate from practices that are not in keeping with God’s will and laws. Being holy means being free from pagan and secular contamination.
Laws and codes can of course be circumvented or treated rather flexibly, and this is what Jesus found among his generation of God’s people. He focused more on the intention behind the law rather than the letter. In today’s gospel reading he advises his disciples on how to respond if they are badly treated. They must not respond aggressively, but in a way that shifts the power from the aggressor to the victim. If a right-handed person slaps a person on the right cheek, the slap is administered by the back of the hand. So turn the left cheek to the aggressor and he would have to slap you with his open hand which would cause much more pain. Jesus’ intention was to shame the oppressor.
Similarly, if someone sues you for your cloak, offer your shirt as well because it is illegal for a creditor to leave a poor debtor naked in the cold. Shame him. Roman soldiers could commandeer a civilian to carry his equipment for a mile. Make it two and challenge the soldier’s attitude to others.
Jesus’ advice was to shift the power from the strong to the weak, and that is exactly what he did in his encounter with Pontius Pilate before his crucifixion. Jesus went further than the Holiness Code which defined a neighbour who they should love as themselves, as a fellow Jew. Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” In Judaism, loving and hating are not emotions. To love means to prefer. To hate means to dis-favour. So to love an enemy means he or she must be treated as an equal. It may not cause an enemy to become a friend but it won’t make matters worse.
Christians should treat others in an equal manner because God does. His sun shines on the righteous as well as the unrighteous and his rain falls on the just and the unjust. Sadly, St Paul did not find this equality among the Christians in Corinth. This was a church full of factions, each creating their own version of the teachings of the Apostles. St Paul is convinced that the creation of factions such as the progressive liberals, conservative traditionalist and ultra-traditional fundamentalists that we have in the Church today, has the potential to cause the Church to slide into schism and divide into a multitude of communities as the Protestant churches have done.
To avoid this, our leaders in the Catholic Church must be servant leaders, not gurus, superstars, media darlings or even living legends. The Catholic faithful do not belong to our leaders. They belong to Christ. Our leaders are to be the servants of the Church who lead, guide, inform and spiritually feed us. If they don’t we would quickly slide into making decisions in life based on “What would Jesus say about this, or what would Jesus do in this situation?” What this means in reality is, “My understanding of what Jesus would say or do in a particular situation has a very high level of agreement with what I think.”
We in the Catholic Church are charting our course through the very difficult waters that has caused the Protestant churches to lose their direction, flounder, and in some cases to come close to extinction. It isn’t the first time the Church has faced stormy waters and it won’t be the last. To steer our way through them we need courageous servant leaders and a hard working crew who are prayerfully vigilant, faithful to God and the teaching he has revealed to the Church through the generations. We have to be spiritually discerning so we can recognise what is of God and what isn’t, and above all, persevere to the end. God needs us, the Church needs us, and we need each other.