Sunday, February 24, 2019

"The Lord is kind and merciful" and so should you be

Readings: 1 Sam 26:2.7-9.12-13.22-23; Ps 103:1-4.8.10.12-13; 1 Cor 15:45-49; Luke 6:27-38

I had an ambitious plan to write about the readings for this Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. But the time I needed to execute that plan was given to editing the first two chapters of my doctoral work. The good news is, I only have two more chapters to edit before proceeding to write the fifth. The bad news is, my plan for today's reading will only be partially carried out.

Given last week's Vatican Summit on Child Sexual Abuse, it seems like a monstrous thing to preach on or write about forgiveness. What a provocation! I want to start by observing that a perpetrator cannot, in justice, demand forgiveness from the person he has harmed. He may express sorrow, he may ask, even beg, for forgiveness, but the power to forgive rests solely with the one who has been harmed. This is right and just.

I am pretty sure everyone has heard the jokey saying, "To err is human, to forgive is out of the question." Of course, this saying plays off a more sincere, if hopelessly platitudinous one: "To err is human, to forgive is divine." In light of Christ's teaching and David's example, I would submit that to err is human and to forgive also human. While the refusal to forgive is a huge problem, the inability to forgive, despite one's desire to do so, is simply a weakness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out: "It is not the sins of weakness, but the sins of strength that matter." I take this to mean it is "the sins of strength" we need to repent of, that is, forsake. It is a grace simply to want to forgive. Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is choice, an act of one's will. When badly injured and aggrieved, one may need to choose forgiveness over and again. Not only can forgiveness be a process, it can often be an excruciating ordeal. I was tempted to extend the title of this blog post using an elliptical statement: "The Lord is kind and merciful" and so should you be... but damn it's hard!

What you would not know by reading today's first reading is that Saul and his sleeping band of warriors are actively hunting David in an effort to kill him. Saul wanted to kill David because his kingship was threatened by this upstart. This makes David's refusal to pin Saul to the ground with his own spear by driving it through him much more admirable than his refusal to harm the Lord's anointed. But Saul was anointed as Israel's first king. David clearly respected Saul's chosen-ness. David's refusal to kill Saul as he helplessly slept was an act of faith, hope, and love. While Saul, who made himself David's enemy, ultimately met a violent death, he was not killed by David's hand.

Refusing to forgive, it has been said, is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die. So, in addition to loving one's neighbor, forgiveness demonstrates a just love for self.

David Refuses to Kill Sleeping Saul, by Count Feodor Tolstoy, 1806


Jesus's teachings as set forth by the sacred authors of Matthew and Luke respectively in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on Plain were derived from a common source (usually called "Q" for the German word Quelle, meaning "source"). What Matthew renders "So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48), appears in Luke as "Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36). In light of this, a passage from my doctoral project, which is a systematic theological approach to diaconal spirituality seems fitting:

"Traditionally, the metaphysical origin of the Christian doctrine of God holds that since God is Being Itself, God enjoys absolute perfection of being. God’s perfection of being 'entails God’s inability to suffer (ἀπάθεια),' God’s apatheia (Walter Kasper, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, 11). According to this traditional view, 'suffering must be understood as a deficiency' (Ibid). It is on this basis that Walter Kasper asserts that 'dogmatic theology has difficulty speaking of a compassionate God'(Ibid). Kasper goes on to point out that excluding the possibility of God suffering is pastorally catastrophic. A God who is 'so abstractly conceived… appears to most people very distant from their personal situation'(Ibid) 'Such a God,' Kasper continues,
appears to most people to have little or nothing to do with the situation of the world in which almost daily horrible news reports come, one after the other, and many people are deeply troubled by anxieties about the future
"In Kasper’s view, the divergence between human experience and the proclamation of the Gospel 'has catastrophic consequences' (Ibid). Proclaiming a God who is not attuned to suffering plays a big role in why God is considered irrelevant to an increasing number of people."

Justice is merciful when it is restorative. Restorative justice, as opposed to retributive justice, is the Christian way. It is justice tempered by mercy aimed at repentance. Jesus bids us to even go beyond merely forgiving by his insistence that we do good, pray for, and even love our enemies. Who are our enemies? The ones who do bad things to us, say bad things about us, and seek to make our lives miserable. This is challenging for those "who hear" what Jesus says in today's Gospel passage.

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