Sunday, February 24, 2019

What Does Jesus Mean When He Tells Us to ‘Turn the Other Cheek’?

(Seventh Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on February 24, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Samuel 26:2-23; Psalm 103:1-13; 1 Corinthians 15:45-39; Luke 6:27-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventh Sunday 2019]

“To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other as well.”

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that these words of Jesus have caused many people over the centuries to shake their heads in disbelief. 

They’ll typically say, “Is he serious?  Does Jesus expect us to subject ourselves to physical abuse and like it?  Is he saying that if we defend ourselves from physical attack it’s a mortal sin?  What does he mean when he tells us to ‘turn the other cheek’?” 

Well, to answer these questions, we need to make a very important distinction: the distinction between those things which are morally wrong, those things which are morally legitimate, and those things which are morally virtuous.  For example, if an armed soldier refuses to defend an innocent civilian in battle, and allows that person to be attacked or killed, that soldier commits a sin!  His failure to help a defenseless person is morally wrong!  Listen to what Jesus (speaking through his Church) tells us in the Catechism.  This is from paragraph 2265 which deals with the 5th commandment (“Thou shalt not kill.”).  There we are told, “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others.  The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.  For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.”

That soldier could have done something—and SHOULD have done something—to save an innocent person from an unjust aggressor.  But he consciously and deliberately failed to carry out his duty, and therein lies his sin.

So, obviously, when Jesus says, “Offer [your other cheek],” he is not saying that we should permit the destruction of the innocent or the defenseless!

Nor is he saying that we should allow ourselves to be abused or killed!  That’s another common misunderstanding of the text.

The Catechism is very clear on this point: Self-defense is morally legitimate, as long as it’s proportional to the attack.  For example, if someone tries to slap your face without good reason, it would not be morally permissible to pull out a 44 Magnum and blow them away!  But it would be permissible to block the person’s hand and neutralize the attack— that’s a proportional defense.

The basis of this, believe it or not, is the idea that we should love ourselves!  Remember, Jesus said, “Love your neighbor AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF.”  Self-love is not bad, as long as it’s not prideful or egotistical or narcissistic.  We are to love ourselves because we are created in God’s image and likeness; we are to love ourselves because we are “temples of the Holy Spirit.”

Listen once again to the words of the Catechism.  These are taken from paragraph 2264: “Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality.  Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life.”

God has entrusted a “temple of the Holy Spirit” to each of us; consequently it’s morally permissible for us to defend our temple if it’s unjustly attacked. 

Leaving aside now these misunderstandings, what exactly is Jesus saying?  What are the challenges he’s giving us in this command to “turn the other cheek?”  Well, first of all, he’s challenging us to forgive others totally and completely; that means he’s challenging us to let go of any and every grudge.  He’s also challenging us not to seek vengeance; he’s challenging us to be patient with the shortcomings of others and to love everyone, even our enemies.  In short, Jesus is challenging us to do all those things we have great difficulty doing!

And he’s also challenging us in our willingness to endure unjust suffering for his sake and the sake of his Gospel: for example, the suffering that comes when a co-worker calls us “a religious fanatic” because we believe in the 10 Commandments; the suffering that comes when family members refuse to associate with us because we take our faith seriously and refuse to compromise our beliefs; the suffering that comes to the young Christian person who’s ostracized by his so-called friends because he won’t drink, or do drugs, or engage in promiscuous sexual activity.  These are examples of the “little martyrdoms” that Jesus challenges us to embrace every day in his name!

So the bottom line is this: It’s morally wrong NOT to defend the innocent, when you have a responsibility to do so; it’s morally legitimate to defend yourself from an unjust aggressor; but it’s morally virtuous to endure unjust sufferings and little martyrdoms each day, for the sake of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. 

Through the power of the Eucharist that we receive at this Mass, may God give us the special grace we need to be morally virtuous in this way, taking our ultimate motivation from Jesus himself, who said, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!  Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.”  

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Why We Have Difficulty Trusting in the Lord, and How to Overcome These Obstacles

The Prophet Jeremiah

(Sixth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on February 17, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jeremiah 17:5-8; Psalm 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday 2019]

“Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.” 

The prophet Jeremiah tells us this in today’s first reading.  But, as he himself would certainly attest, trusting in God is easier said than done!  Jeremiah suffered a great deal during his life because he told the people of Israel the truth, and they did not want to hear it!  Consequently, even though he consistently reaffirmed his faith in God and in God’s power to deliver him, he did have a few moments when he was driven to the brink of despair.  In chapter 21 of his book, for example, he cries out, “Cursed be the day on which I was born.  May the day my mother gave me birth never be blessed!  Cursed be the man who brought news to my father, saying, ‘A child, a son, has been born to you!’ . . . Why did I come forth from the womb, to see sorrow and pain, to end my days in shame?”  (Jeremiah 21: 14-15, 18)

In preparation for this homily, I reflected on the reasons why we, like Jeremiah, might have difficulty trusting in God.  And it didn’t take long for several reasons to come to mind!  Now please do not misunderstand: these are not excuses for failing to trust in the Lord, but they are factors that must be dealt with—and overcome—if we do want to put our trust in him.

The first is: the dissenting voices around us….

“Why do you pray?  It’s a waste of time.  God’s never done anything for me!” 
“You believe the piece of bread you get in church is the Body of Christ?!  You’ve got to be kidding!” 
“If God is so good, why does he allow me to suffer?” 

These are the voices of the skeptics—and there are many of them in today’s world!  If we want to trust in God, we’ve somehow got to deal with these negative messages, such that they don’t destroy our faith.

St. Paul understood the destructive power of these dissenting voices very well, which is why he wrote the words we heard in today’s second reading from 1 Corinthians 15!  Paul says there: “If Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection from the dead?”  Apparently, in Corinth, some skeptics were denying the dogma of the bodily resurrection, and this was undermining the faith of sincere believers.  St. Paul knew he had to confront this problem head on—which he did in the verses read to us a few minutes ago.

Another reason why it may be difficult for us to trust in the Lord: our own personal experience of disappointment and betrayal.  If we have been deeply hurt by another human being in whom we once put our trust—a visible human being such as a spouse, a close friend or a co-worker—how much more difficult will it be for us to trust an invisible God? 

Or how a about our own present circumstances?  These also can undermine trust.  For example, Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Blessed are you who are poor . . . blessed are you who are now hungry . . . blessed are you who are now weeping. . . blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil.”  The implication there is that we will be blessed in these difficult circumstances if we trust in God and allow his grace to work in our hearts.  But, let’s face it, the experience of poverty or hunger or sorrow or persecution can make trusting in God very difficult.

So can false expectations, which come from not knowing our catholic faith.  If we mistakenly think that God has promised us heaven on earth; if we are under the false impression that once we take our faith seriously all our crosses will disappear, then we will have a great deal of trouble trusting God when things go wrong for us.  We’ll say, “Why should I trust you, Lord?  I’ve tried to do the right thing—I’ve tried to do it your way—and I’ve still ended up with suffering and heartache.”  At that point, we will need a brief Catechism lesson, where we’ll learn about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who never did anything wrong, but still ended up with the biggest Cross of all!

And then we have the failures of those who profess to be followers of Christ.  These also can undermine our trust in God: the sins of priests and ministers, which people in the media love to throw in our faces; the sins of relatives, friends, and others who claim to be Christian. 

Or how about our own sins?  These also weaken our trust in God, because they distance us from him.  And, in the case of mortal sin, they actually destroy the life of God within us!

Those are just some of the reasons why trusting in the Lord can be extremely difficult.  But notice I say “difficult,” not “impossible!”

Which leads us to consider the reasons why we should trust in the Lord in spite of the many difficulties and challenges.

These reasons I would say fall into two categories: the “objective” and the “subjective.”

The objective reasons for trusting in the Lord are the reasons we hear about in the Word of God: that is to say, in the Sacred Scriptures and in the authoritative teachings of the Church.  There we are promised great blessings, not only in eternity, but also here and now, if we put our trust in God.  Jeremiah speaks of some of these temporal blessings in today’s first reading (which is one of my favorite passages in the Bible).  He says, “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord.  He is like a tree planted beside the waters, that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.”  God doesn’t promise us “heaven on earth” if we trust him, but he does promise to give us whatever we need to cope successfully with our crosses, and the grace to grow spiritually in the process.  Yes, there will be times of “heat” and “drought”—those we can expect in this life whether we are the worst sinner or the greatest saint—but if we put our trust in the Lord we will bear “good fruit” even in those bad times.  That, I would say, is very good news, and a great motivation to trust!

And then there’s this text from Proverbs 3 (again, one of my favorites): “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, on your own intelligence rely not; in all your ways be mindful of him, and he will make your paths straight.”  God promises to guide us and shepherd us (in good times and bad) if we put our faith and trust in him.  More good news!

Which brings us to the subjective reasons for trusting in the Lord.  These would include the experiences of people we know (or know of) who have successfully overcome all the obstacles and put their trust in God.  I think, for example, of my own mother, who said to me on her deathbed, “God is in control.”  I will never, ever forget those words.  As she was lying there, dying of cancer, she reaffirmed her deep trust in God; and that, I believe, gave her an incredible strength and peace in the final moments of her life.  Whenever I think back on that expression of her trust, I am inspired to place my confidence in God.

And finally, we should think of those times in our own personal history when we made the decision to trust in the Lord and experienced his special strength and help.  Those thoughts about the past can (and should) motivate us to trust God NOW!  Our prayer should be, “Lord I know what you did for me when I trusted you back then; I believe you’ll also give me whatever I need today, in the situation I’m facing right now!”

Which leads to my final point: we must pray!  Ultimately the ability to trust is a gift from God.  We can have the best possible objective and subjective reasons to trust in the Lord—we still need the grace of God for it to happen.  Remember the prayer of St. Faustina?  That’s one we should say often: “Jesus, I trust in you.” 

Say it after you receive the Eucharist today and go back to your pew to commune with the Lord; say it when you pray at home; say it when you’re driving your car; say it when you’re putting away the groceries; say it constantly—believing that God will answer your prayer, and give you the grace you need to trust in him.