Sunday, June 12, 2016

"AN EYE FOR AN EYE . . . "


Homily for June 13th, 2016: 1 Kings 21:1-16; Matthew 5:38-42.

In today’s first reading we heard the story of an injustice which cries to heaven for vengeance. King Ahab of Samaria, a man with absolute power over his subjects and already rich, as all kings were in those days, would like to upgrade his property by taking over the adjoining vineyard of his poor neighbor, Naboth. He could have simply confiscated it. That is what kings did in those days. Instead he offers compensation: a vineyard elsewhere, or purchase at a reasonable price. When Naboth refuses to part with his vineyard at any price, Ahab is so frustrated that he takes to his bed and refuses to eat.  

Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, is made of sterner stuff than her husband. “What are you,” she asks him in disgust, “a wimp? Leave it to me. I’ll get that vineyard for you.” She then writes letters to the authorities, sealed with the king’s seal, accusing Naboth of high treason. Her frame-up, as we would call it, succeeds. After a public show trial, Naboth suffers death by stoning. As the story ends, King Ahab is on his way to take over the now ownerless vineyard. ‘What an outrage!’ we think. 

          In the gospel Jesus speaks about the question of how to respond to injuries received. Jesus’ words, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” are a quotation from the Old Testament, where they were actually a limitation on vengeance: only an eye for an eye, no more. Vengeance must not exceed the injury received. (cf. Deut. 19:21) A later Old Testament passage states what is sometimes called the Silver Rule: “Do to no one what you yourself dislike” (Tobit 4:15). Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus changes this into the Golden Rule: “Treat others the way you would have them treat you” (Matt.7:12). When we take the initiative in doing good to those who have injured us, we elevate the moral level, creating an atmosphere of positive good will.

          Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, “Offer no resistance to one who is evil,” do not counsel indifference to injustice. They are a strategy for winning – by shaming our adversary into better behavior. In modern times this strategy of non-violence, as it is called, has been used successfully by Gandhi in India, and by Martin Luther King in our own country. St Paul, writing before any of the gospels existed, shows himself fully aware of Jesus’ teaching when he writes: “If possible, live peaceably with everyone. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves; leave that to God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:18f)