Year A

7th Sunday of Year A

One of the most curious aspects of the ministry of Jesus is both the place in which it begins and the message by which it begins.  It begins in Galilee, the territory of great oppression by the Romans.  As the writer, Miroslav Volf identifies, when Jesus begins his ministry, the Palestinian population “was suffering under the loss of national sovereignty to the Romans, as well as under a tense relationship between the Jewish aristocracy and the Herodian monarchy.  Economically, the majority were caught between the Roman and the domestic elites, both of which were competing with the other to expand their fortune, especially through taxation.  Dominated, taken advantage of, and threatened in their cultural identity, the majority of the Palestinians were victimized.” [1]

It is to these people that Jesus begins his ministry.  Yet, he does so curiously with a call to repent.  But what those who were so victimized have to repent of?  The reaction of those who first heard the message must have been along the lines, “Why do we have to repent?  We are the oppressed.  We have nothing for which to repent!  Go down to Tiberias, the Roman capital of Galilee, and preach the message to those who are oppressing us.  They are the ones who are doing us wrong.  They are the ones who have something for which to repent!”  However, it is not to the oppressor that Jesus preaches repentance; it is to the oppressed.  

This is the great paradox with which the Gospel starts, and it brings us to a particular consideration central in the teaching of Jesus – how we respond to those who do us wrong.  There is something in the response we make to the experience of being hurt that is critical for Jesus’ vision of the new community that his ministry inaugurates.  How are we to respond to those who do us wrong?  How are we to react to those who hurt us?  We are wronged in many ways, and we cannot but be hurt by others at times.  Some of us live with very deep and painful hurts in our life, but all of us must deal at some level with the experience of hurt even by virtue of our struggle to live with one another. It is the way we address these situations which brings us to the very heart of our Christian response to life.

As a Galilean, Jesus knows only too well that in the face of oppression, of being wronged, of being hurt, a natural tendency arises to seek revenge.  Deep within the heart of every victim anger swells up against the perpetrator.  The climate of pervasive oppression in which Jesus preached was suffused with the desire for revenge.  The principle, “If anyone hits you, hit back!  If anyone takes your coat, burn down his house!” seemed the only way to survive.  Lamech’s kind of revenge, which returns seventy seven blows for every one received, seemed, paradoxically, the only way to root our injustice (Gen 4:23-24).  Jesus, however, identifies that in the end vengeance enslaves.  Where violence begets vengeance, the cycle of violence and revenge are simply perpetuated.  Revenge simply consolidates the prison of polarity. Revenge begets revenge, and the circle of violence, of domination and submission, of exclusion and isolation is continued.

And so what do the Galileans have to repent?  They are to repent of their instinct for revenge.  Jesus invites the Galileans in the face of their hurt to let go of their instinct for vengeance. As for the Galileans, so too for us.  As followers of Jesus we are drawn into the same mystery of forgiveness rather than revenge as a response to wrongs done to us, to hurts suffered by us.  Revenge locks us into cycles of oppressor and oppressed.  Forgiveness opens out a different space in which something different can emerge.

The very first step of the journey of forgiveness is to let go of the instinct to strike up, to hit back, to have revenge.  We know the instinct well.  We, ourselves, might not seek revenge by taking up arms and physically retaliating, but I am sure everyone one of us, like me, has at times spent many hours playing over and over in our mind the way that we might verbally re-assert our superiority over the one who has hurt us so that they might the suffering they have inflicted on us might be duly returned.  Christian forgiveness is first and foremost the decision to get off this record going on in our heads.  Let go of the instinct for revenge, no matter how subtle and sophisticated the instinct express itself.  Let it go.  

This is a decision.  It is an act of our will.  In the face of all our feelings we can make a decision to let go of the instinct welling up inside of us to strike back.  And when we make this decision we have embarked upon the most important step along the journey of forgiveness.  This demonstrates to us that genuine forgiveness is not a feeling. We may never feel forgiving; we do not need to feel forgiving in order to forgive.  There are some hurts that we will experience in our life which will always generate painful feelings and we do not have to get over these feelings before we forgive.  Neither does forgiveness mean that we forget our hurts.  Again, some hurts are altogether too deep, too painful, to forget.  Further, there are some hurts we should never forget.  What makes the difference is not whether we have memories of being hurt or not but how we deal with our memories of being hurt.  Each time we remember a hurt the instinct for revenge will arise in us.  Each time we remember a hurt the same call comes to us:  let go of the instinct for revenge.

This renunciation of revenge creates within us a space in which we can see both ourselves and the one who has hurt us more truthfully, more fully.  This space created by our refusal to get drawn into the perpetuation of cycles of winners and losers, conquerors and vanquished, is the foundation of justice.  Justice is not revenge.  Revenge is immediate, swift.  Revenge restores my feelings of power and control.  But revenge is a treadmill from which there is no freedom.  Justice is something else.  Justice must lead to freedom, to the release of the burden of a treadmill in which ultimately I remain a victim.  But justice takes time.  Justice is considered.  Justice is the capacity for both the oppressor and the victim to see the situation for what it is.  It is the space in and by which the one who has hurt me might recognize their actions and by which those actions to redress the situation can be fully considered.  

It is this outcome of genuine justice, emerging from the renunciation of revenge that delivers Christian forgiveness from both passivity and sentimentality.  Christian forgiveness is not about pretending that a wrong has not occurred.  It is not about simply being passive in the face of injustice.  It is not about feeling nice towards others irrespective of the harm that they have inflicted on me.  As we have proposed, Christian forgiveness has got nothing at all to do about feeling forgiving.  As we were reflecting last week Jesus does not call us to feel a certain way.  He calls us to act in a certain way.  And the way that he calls us to act is in a way different from others.  

Jesus calls us to act beyond the predictable response.  He calls us to act in a bold and creative way.  At those times in which the very future of our life together is at stake, that is when we are wronged and hurt, he calls us to act beyond our instincts.  And then, perhaps, even in our humanity we will glimpse something which is divine.

[1] See Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace:  A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1996), 111-125.  I am indebted to Volf for the principles that I enunciate through the homily.

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