Sunday, 20 February 2011

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Today’s Gospel continues from last week and it forms a part of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. He spoke to his disciples by referring to a law which they were familiar with, the lex talionis—the law of retaliation. Within the context of this law of retaliation, Christ encouraged His disciples to strive for perfection.

In a way, Christ actually built on the vision of the first reading. There, the community of the Sons of Israel was invited to imitate God’s holiness. How? Holiness was expressed in one’s actions towards one’s neighbour but it was basically “restrictive” in the sense that the love of neighbour was restricted to the love of a fellow Israelite. There were provisions for the care of the stranger. Still, the stranger was someone excluded. In Christ, living in holiness, which is an imitation of God’s perfection, has been broadened to include loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you.

If holiness means loving one’s enemies and praying for them, perhaps we can better contextualise lex talionis. For many of us, this law seems to expose man’s capacity for violence because retaliation and revenge are two sides of a coin. It sounds positively uncivilised as it resembles the rule of “tit for tat”.

But, lex talionis is not a “tit for tat” justice. It is a form of retributive justice which tries to ensure that any corresponding and subsequent damage (a form of compensation) demanded to assuage an aggrieved party is proportionate. It was a moral attempt to prevent society from sinking any lower than it was. The intent of lex talionis was more to limit our violence rather than it being an expression of our need for revenge. Thus, it has next to nothing to do with what we commonly think of as a “tit for tat” rule.

The intent of lex talionis was to limit violence but that was not enough because it could only deal with the aftermath of a wrong committed. And because it could only deal with the consequence, there was a tendency to veer towards reprisal or retaliation. So, Christ in broadening the boundary of holiness to include forgiveness, compassion and generosity may help us to go beyond the aftermath of an evil suffered or a wrong committed against us. It allows us not to be overcome by the consequence of what is evil or an injustice.

Today, His teaching is even more crucial because our definition of justice is markedly or decidedly vengeful. My lecturer in the University used to say, “I don’t get angry, I get even”. Our sense of justice is you get what you deserve. Contrast it with God’s sense of justice. God’s sense of justice is what you need. Now you understand why those who came to work at the 11th hour got paid the same as those who came at the 1st hour.

For many people, the idea of justice is also linked to what is commonly called closure. It is often said that closure is needed before one can move on. Those who break up with a boy or a girl know that feeling of incompleteness that there seem to be some unfinished matters which prevent them from going forward. The need for closure drives a person into a wasteland of unfinished business being neither here nor there.

This description of “closure” as the need to come to terms in order to move on is best illustrated in the case of capital punishment. A criminal put to death for some heinous crimes is often the closure that the victim's family might need in order to move on. This sense of justice may be expressed this way: “We cannot live if the criminal has not suffered like we had”. In many cases, long after the criminal is put to death, the victim's family remains trapped within their prison of hatred.

Justice and therefore reparation, through retribution, through restoration or through resistance, does not always produce the “closure” we so desperately and psychologically need. Two things can be said here. Firstly, closure has more to do with forgiveness than retribution. What makes forgiveness difficult is because we mistake it to be “forgetfulness”. It is not. Instead, forgiveness is letting go of the need to exact a revenge meaning that tit for tat is not a win-win equation. And it leads me to the second point. The closure that we desperately need belongs not exclusively in this world. In the Old Testament world, even though provisions were made for the treatment of the “widows, the orphans, the poor and the strangers”, this group of people would always somehow be “discriminated” against. Thus, the Lord hears the cry of the poor, says the Psalmist. What the world does not see, God sees. We might need to reconsider where to place this “need” for closure. On the one hand, we should do all in our power to rectify injustice but on the other hand, in the context of the Resurrection, if closure does not take place in this world, Hope gives us the assurance that the closure we need will be found in the next world. It will be found in God. That is why “the sick, the ugly and the retarded” are not aberrations to be rid off. If closure must take place in this world, then “the sick, the ugly and the retarded” are damned forever.

Christ who came from a “world” more just than ours could ever be, told His disciples that the perfection demanded by forgiveness, compassion and generosity was possible. In our justice-oriented world, we often feel that every wrong must be made right before there can be a closure and life can move on. Here it would seem as if Christ were counselling fatalism or determinism: give up, do not struggle and it is definitely alright that people walk all over us. Was He? No, He was definitely not. Beyond the requirement that we make right what is wrong, Christ’s commands make sense: be ready to forgive, be ready to let go and be ready to go the extra mile. If it does not help the other, it might just do more for us than the “closure” we yearn for.