Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
February 20, 2022 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
2 Samuel 26:2;7-9;12-13;22-23 | Psalm 103;1-4;8;10;12-13
I Corinthians 15:45-49 | Luke 6:27-38
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
I am a news addict. I watch several hours of television news every day. Throughout the day, I constantly check various news websites to keep up to date on what’s going on. And my undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh is in Communications, a fancy word for journalism. In fact, I worked in the news business, both print and broadcast as a college student and thereafter, but never made a career of it, principally because the dirt-cheap salaries paid to beginning reporters could not support my desired standard of living. Nonetheless, my assiduous devotion to the news media serves me well in providing material for my homilies.
Many newscasts and newspapers lead with stories of violent crime. The theory is that the more blood that is spilled, the more people will watch you on television or buy your newspaper. Inevitably, the stories include interviews with victims or their families. Those interviews have a common theme that goes something like, “This bad person wronged me or my family member, and I want that person punished as severely as possible.”
I really can’t blame victims for feeling that way. Such a reaction follows the gut instinct of human persons. We can see that in nearly every human society, criminals are punished, sometimes by killing them by way of capital punishment.
The corollary of that idea is the inaccurate notion that societies that coddle criminals have more crime and that the threat and/or reality of severe punishment will mean less crime. Just this week, I read in the Los Angeles Times that crime victim rights groups are pushing a new initiative to modify Proposition Forty-Seven that was passed by voters in twenty-eighteen to reduce certain crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Public perception is that the recent increase in crime arose from those reductions. However, as is usual for many political issues, the proponents of enhancing punishment do not give us an objective and detailed factual analysis showing cause-and-effect.
The theory that punishment will eliminate crime is pure folly. If it did, we would have zero crime, which we don’t. Thus, it is a theory based on instinctive emotions and cultural expectations, not objective facts. While incarcerating people removes dangerous people from the streets, the very high recidivism rate for former prisoners tells us that prison often does not change inmate behavior once they are released. Yet we have people punishing other people as some sort of a moral imperative to “do justice.”
Much of my preaching has portrayed Jesus as an agent of substantial change for the way people relate to each other. Today’s readings are no exception.
The message of Jesus is clear: don’t punish or retaliate against people who wrong you. Instead, love them. For many people, however, including myself at times, this is a hard message to accept and practice. Such is true for much of what Jesus wants from us.
The visceral reaction to someone who wrongs us or does something we find reprehensible is based on our judgment of that person, our determination that a particular person is a bad person. We often investigate to uncover facts favorable to us to support our position instead of getting the facts first and then forming an opinion.
Judgmentalism is often ascribed to solely our conservative sisters and brothers.
For example, they are known for their condemnation of same-sex relationships and a plethora of other issues relating to sexuality based on a literal interpretation of scripture, which in and of itself is defective, and scientific ignorance.
Another example is their disapproval of racial minorities based on negative stereotypes such as calling Mexicans lazy, when in fact, Mexicans work very hard and work very well.
But conservatives are not alone in their judgmentalism. Progressives do the same thing with their “cancel culture” elevating political correctness to quasi-biblical status. What is “cancel culture”?
“Cancel culture,” also known as “call-out culture,” is a contemporary form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person.
“Cancel culture” causes historical monuments to be removed due to a re-evaluation of events that happened decades and centuries ago.
“Cancel culture” is also at work when ecclesiastical authorities prohibit the performance of music of composers who allegedly have engaged in various improprieties despite the clear merits of their music. This is somewhat akin to the Donatist heresy of the Sixth Century, which held that clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. The reason why Donatism is heretical is that it fails to recognize that God’s grace flows uninterrupted through someone without modification or corruption.
Judgmentalism, Cancel-Culture, and Donatism all have two things in common.
The first problem is that opinions come from preconceived notions of what the world should look like, even though the ideas articulated do not match life in the real world. The facts are that Jesus never condemned same-sex relationships and that Mexicans exhibit an outstanding work ethic that puts most of the rest of the world to sham.
The second problem is that Judgmentalism, Cancel-Culture, and Donatism have human persons taking on God’s role. In today’s Gospel, Jesus explicitly condemns those who judge others. His message is, “What comes around, goes around.” In other words, don’t judge others if you don’t want them to judge you. If you want to be forgiven, you must forgive others. If you do good things, you will get good things in return.
Rather than condemn and punish others who displease us, Jesus asks us to show mercy in the same way that God is merciful to us. Mercy illustrates God’s attitude towards humanity and provides a template for how human persons should relate among themselves.
Mercy is not a mere abstraction. Our mercy is manifested in our attitudes and behavior towards one another. God’s mercy towards us comes from God’s love for us. Our mercy towards others comes from following the second of the Two Great Commandments imploring us to love others as we love ourselves, which incidentally came originally from the Old Testament Book of Leviticus.
Jesus expects us to be loving towards each other in the same way that God loves us. That fits right in with the new commandment Jesus gave us on the night before he died, which is, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus tells us over and over again in today’s Gospel to be merciful even to those that hate us. All of us face situations where, for example, someone speaks ill of us to others or steals from us. To react towards those folk with mercy is challenging for all of us.
Today’s First Reading shows us what mercy looks like on a practical basis. Let me give some context. In response to the clamoring of the Jewish people for a king, God’s prophet Samuel anointed Saul as the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel. But Saul was not a very good king. In those days, kings led their armies in battle. Saul, however, was not all that successful in defeating the Philistines, the main enemy of the Jewish people at the time. To make a long story short, God decided that David, who was serving in Saul’s army, would do a better job than Saul. So Samuel anointed David as Saul’s successor.
As can be expected, Saul didn’t like that. A rivalry then developed between Saul and David. Saul became intent on murdering David and set about hunting him down. However, David turned the tables on Saul and was able to enter Saul’s camp and approach Saul while he was sleeping. He had a chance to stab and kill Saul with Saul’s own sword as David’s companion Abisihi had suggested. That would mean Saul would die a disgraceful death.
But David did not avail himself of that opportunity to kill Saul. David showed mercy on Saul. That is the kind of mercy is that God expects of us, too. Jesus echoes the same message in today’s Gospel. David refused to harm the king. David respected God by acknowledging that Saul was still the one chosen by God to lead the people. The fate of God’s anointed one was in God’s own hands, not David’s hands. David was not going to supplant God. David explained this to Abishai while in the camp, and later, when he was at a safe distance, he announced it to those who were pursuing him. David does not take advantage of the fact God favored him.
That’s the whole point. God alone rewards and punishes, not human persons one to another. When we judge others, we put ourselves in God’s place. Doesn’t that sound like a transgression of the First of the Ten Commandments, where God told Moses, “I am God. You shall have no other gods but me.” We as people, however, want to elevate ourselves to God’s level and do God’s will as we want it done. And the way God wants things done is with more mercy than human persons commonly show each other.
Even though some religious people depict God as judgmental and cruel, that’s not who God really is. As the refrain in today’s Psalm tells us, “The Lord is kind and merciful.” God pardons our sins and heals our ills. God is full of mercy and grace, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness. What Jesus wants from us in today’s Gospel is so simple: we need to relate to other people in the same way God relates to us.
Loving one’s enemies, doing good to those who hate you, blessing those who curse you, and praying for those who mistreat you is a tall order for many people. That is not what we do instinctively as human beings. It does not reflect contemporary social norms that call for people to hold other people accountable for their misdeeds. For many people, justice means those who wrong us should be punished, despite what Jesus calls us to do.
No one ever said behaving as Jesus wants us to do was easy. In fact, it is quite difficult, even in church. However, the Church, to be the Church, when it comes to mercy, must always lead by example rather than defer to secular norms. Mercy can and must be the foundation of the Church’s daily life. All Church activity should reflect the tenderness the church preaches to the world; nothing the Church does can lack in mercy. Why? Without showing mercy and compassion in all the Church does, the Church shows no credibility.
But all churches are made up of imperfect human people who sin all the time, clergy included. Contemporary people, laity and clergy alike, seem to be opposed to living mercifully based on what they do, in contrast to what they say. What I see in the world around me are people who make no room for a God of mercy or even consider mercy as a virtue worth elevating or pursuing.
Christianity has turned off and turned away many people by its preaching of a harsh, judgmental God. People tune that out, and they tune God out as well, even though that picture of God is decidedly false. We as human persons want to be comforted and soothed, not judged and punished. That is what mercy is.
Humans hunger for mercy, yet I see people actively excluding mercy from the human heart and even denigrating as weak those who show mercy. We can see this in the crime shows on television, like “Forensic Files” when they show the disappointment of the families of murder victims on those rare programs where an accused person is found not guilty. This mindset carries over into the Church itself when we see people wanting to import secular norms of justice instead of the norms of Jesus in handling Church business.
Mercy is the beating heart of the Gospel of Jesus. Mercy permeates the entirety of the teachings of Jesus, as well it should and must. The Church can and must pattern its behavior accordingly. Mercy must be the constant theme of the Church’s evangelization efforts. Mercy must be the predominant image of the Church and the predominant theme in all of its communications.
Unfortunately, however, for many churches, mercy is scarce. Many churches substitute legalism for mercy. They reduce religion to a set of rules one must follow to supposedly win God’s favor. More accurately, however, church rules are more likely to favor church leaders than favor God. More often than not, churches behave precisely the opposite of what Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel, where Jesus is calling us to engage in selfless mercy.
In a society like ours that without relent promulgates self-interested individualism as a high virtue, the message of Jesus to allow thieves to keep what they take and borrowers do not pay lenders is heresy. It goes against everything we have been taught from the time we were children. It goes against legal principles that have been part of every justice system since time immemorial. People with no religious background say either that these particular teachings of Jesus defy common sense, or that Christians live hypocritically because how they behave does not reflect what they preach. Very often, their thinking is correct.
Today’s Second Reading helps us understand why that is so. In its discussion comparing Adam and Jesus, who is often called “the Last Adam.” Adam was of the earth, but Jesus is of heaven. we as human persons are oriented towards earth than towards heaven. Jesus succeeded where Adam failed in the human relationship with God by refocusing the goal of human existence from mortal to immortal life.
For Jesus, getting what we want in life in the here and now pales in importance to becoming God’s children to become one with God in eternity. Consequently, the question we all face is whether oneness with God is more important than immediate worldly advantages.
The major objection to mercy for wrongdoers is it overlooks justice. In other words, there is a danger of becoming a doormat for those who would harm you. No one wants that. So how do we exchange unmerciful justice for justice-free mercy?
The answer may be what’s called “Restorative Justice.” What is Restorative Justice? Restorative Justice is a way of understanding crime in terms of the people and relationships that were harmed, rather than the law that was broken. Restorative Justice is rooted in values of human dignity, right-relationship, healing, accountability, and encounter, consistent with Catholic Social Teaching.
Restorative justice focuses first on the victim and the community harmed by the crime, rather than on the dominant state-against-the-perpetrator model… Restorative justice also reflects our values and tradition. Our Catholic faith calls us to hold people accountable, to forgive, and to heal.
The values of Restorative Justice reflect mercy for both the victim and the perpetrator through Recognition, Repentance, Restitution, and Reconciliation. What do those terms mean?
Recognition means the perpetrator acknowledges fault and takes responsibility for his or her actions.
Repentance means the perpetrator changes her or his behavior.
Restitution means the perpetrator compensates or repairs the harm that he or she caused.
And Reconciliation, the last step, brings the victim and perpetrator into a positive instead of a negative relationship with each other.
I invite you to re-read today’s Lectionary, to google “Restorative Justice” and then ask yourself whether the Restorative Justice model better fits the teachings of Jesus than the Justice equals Punishment model.
And Restorative Justice does work in the world outside the church. Restorative justice programs have shown that when offenders are provided with support and treated with dignity, they are more likely to respond to a system that retrains thought and action.
According to a Law Enforcement Bulletin on the website of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, studies of these programs nationwide consistently have demonstrated higher rates of victim satisfaction, lower recidivism, better restitution payoffs, and improved offender accountability. It also saves taxpayer dollars. The administration of Restorative Justice programs is much cheaper for the government than operating prison systems.
I grant that Restorative Justice programs are not the perfect answer to every criminal case or to the overall crime problem. Not every victim and not every perpetrator want to face one another. That’s because of early childhood conditioning and enculturation. But Restorative Justice is a step in the right direction because it favors the values that Jesus taught us over those of the secular world.
As you may remember, St. Paul implores us in Romans not to be conformed to the world in which we live but to leave our mind open to God, who is love, and from whom all love comes. AMEN.