Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Saint Stephen February 19, 2023
I have to say that I am a lover of books and movies, and most every week I read at least one book, and most days I watch at least one movie. What we can learn from reading books and watching movies, especially movies based on books, is truly unimaginable. My collection of over 100 of The Greatest Books Ever Written and countless books of philosophy and theology, have filled my mind with wonderous thoughts. So, after reading this week's Gospel, it made me think of a book called The Ox-Bow Incident, that was first published in 1940 and then, only three years later, a year before I was born, was made into a movie. As this Western story begins, a young man rides into town, with the news of cattle-rustlers and even a murder. Cattle-rustling was enough to hang a man in the old West, and the sheriff was out of town. How can the townspeople wait for the law to respond, when a man has been murdered and the outlaws are getting away, and as one of the men insists, the law, then and now, so often disappoints the righteous when the guilty go free. So, the righteous town people take the law into their own hands, lest evil go unpunished. Even without social media, they are ready to hate faceless others to protect what is right. Most everyone in town sets out to track down the culprits, and they hang the three men they capture, whose only crime is being strangers in the valley. Now just the other day, I received an e-mail from a young woman in Florida who was asking for my support in the protest that was taking place this weekend in Tallahassee. The reason for the protest: "Transgender people were spending time in the public park and the townspeople did not want their children to have to look at them," "they are evil people," she said, "they should stay in the closet." My advice, and that was all I could give her, was to read today's Gospel and think about it. To be certain that we have discovered evil is something we can only do by lying to ourselves, while we focus upon some apparent good, which we are choosing. Perhaps there is still a little bit of God left in us, however far we have wandered from God. We know that we are drawn to good, that God is simply the union of goodness and truth. So, when we truly encounter one of these in life, we find the other.
The good is always true, it is always God. However, if evil is the absence of God's truth it will come to us wrapped in deceit. As creatures of God, as a people who emerge from truth and goodness, we can only choose evil by deceiving ourselves totally, or more dangerously, in part. In the book, the townspeople rightly hate evil deeds, cattle-rustling, and murder. But their hate is so strong and their chance of being wrong so low, that they refuse to question themselves sufficiently. What is really stronger in their hearts, love of righteousness or hatred of strangers? Jesus, who is goodness and truth, tells us that hate is not of God. God only loves. Because goodness and truth come from God, they serve a single purpose. They are each intended to be poured out in life-giving love. You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. To hate someone is to turn from God, because God, who is our origin and our destiny, cannot be divided. Our neighbor is a creature of God, a person created wholly from God's goodness and truth. You cannot choose some of God, the part that you like, and leave the rest. We were created to love what is good and true in others, to be attracted by its beauty. To look upon the evil that another does, rather than on the good that the other is, is to go only halfway, or not to go "all in" toward the other. It is to reject something of God. That is why hatred is always deadly. It is a slashing, that inevitably turns back upon the one with the knife. It is a poison we brew for another and then drink ourselves. "But," we say, "my neighbor really does deserve my hatred." What we hate in the other is the negation of God's truth, God's goodness. Yes, we abhor this absence in others, which we call sin, but we must work and pray to love the soul that it has ravished, always remembering that sin has done the same to us. We may very well need to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the evil another has done or is about to do. Sin is real. Sin wounds, it even murders. But even as we withdraw from the sins that others commit, remember that sinners themselves are wounded, just like us. Pray that God keeps us from rejecting goodness and truth, which is our birthright, a birthright that still lies within our enemies. Because once we give way to hate, we have given away our own birthright and our share in God.