The Cycle of Hatred and Retribution Ends with Me – A Homily for the 7th Sunday of the Year

In today’s Gospel the Lord is teaching us, by His grace, to break the cycle of hatred and retribution. When someone harms me I may well become angry, and in my anger seek to get back at the offender. If I do that, though, then Satan has earned a second victory and brought the anger and retribution to a higher level. Most likely, the one who originally harmed me will then take exception to my retribution and try to inflict more harm on me. And so the cycle continues and escalates. Satan loves this.

Break the cycle. The Lord has dispatched us onto the field to turn the game around and break this cycle of retribution and hatred. The “play” He wants us to execute is the “it ends with me” play.

Don’t play on Satan’s team. To hate those who hate me, to get back at those who harm me, is to work for Satan, to play on his team. Why do that?

To advance the ball for Jesus is to break the cycle of retribution and hatred by taking the hit and not returning it. By loving our enemy, we break the cycle of hate. By refusing retribution, we rob Satan of a double victory.

Recall the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. … The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation (From Strength to Love, 1963).

Christ, living in us, wants to break the cycle.

The Necessity of Grace – Recall as well a point made in last Sunday’s reflection: that the antitheses contained in chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew are pictures of the transformed human person. Jesus is describing here what happens to a person in whom He has begun to live through the Holy Spirit. The verses are a description more so than a prescription. Jesus is not merely telling us to stop being so thin-skinned, easily offended, and retaliatory. He’s not just telling us to stop hating people. If that were the case, it would be easy for us to get discouraged or to write them off as some impossible ideal. No, the Lord is doing something far greater than just giving us a set of rules. He is describing what will happen to us more and more as His grace transforms us.

With this in mind, let’s look at the particulars in three sections.

I. Regarding Retaliation – The first of the antitheses reads as follows:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

Behind this text is the gift from the Lord of a generous heart. Psalm 118 says, In the ways of your precepts I run O Lord for you have enlarged my heart. It takes a large heart not to retaliate, to go the extra mile, to give alms. The transformed mind and heart that Jesus gives us is like this. It is a big heart, able to endure personal slights and attacks, refuse retaliation, and let go of personal possessions in pursuit of a higher goal.

That said, there are surely many questions that arise out of these sayings of Jesus’. Most of them, however, come from seeing Jesus’ words as a legalistic prescription rather than as a descriptive example. Nevertheless, they are important questions.

  • What does it mean to offer no resistance to injury?
  • Does it mean that there is no place for a criminal justice system?
  • Should police forces be banned?
  • It there no place for national defense or armed forces?
  • Should all punishment be banned?
  • Should bad behavior never be rebuked?
  • Am I required to relinquish anything anyone asks me for?
  • Must I always give money to beggars?
  • Is it always wise to give someone whatever he asks for?
  • Should I agree to accept every task that is asked of me?

To answer some of these questions, we do well to recall that the Lord is speaking to us as individuals. The state, which has an obligation to protect the innocent from enemies within and without, may be required to use force to repel threats. Further, it has an obligation to secure basic justice and may therefore be required to impose punishment on those who commit crimes. This has been the most common Catholic understanding of this passage. The New Testament seems to accept that the state does have punitive powers, to be used for the common good.

But don’t miss Jesus’ main point, which is directed to us as individuals. He testifies that, to the degree that we are transformed, we will not seek to retaliate or avenge personal injuries. Rather, due to our relationship with God the Father, we will be content to leave such matters to God. As Scripture testifies, Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom 12:19). Further and even more important, to the degree that Jesus lives in us, we will be less easily offended. This is because our sense of our dignity is rooted in Him, not in what some mere mortal thinks, says, or does.

Jesus goes on to give four examples of what He means by us becoming less vengeful and retaliatory.

  1. When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. In ancient times, striking someone in this manner was a sign of disrespect, just as it would be today. There is an intended humiliation when someone strikes another on the cheek. By turning the other cheek, one would then be struck with the back side of the striker’s hand. This was an even greater indignity in the ancient world! But as a Christian in whom Christ is really living, who can really dishonor me? God is the source of my dignity; no one can take it from me. By this grace, I can let any slight pass, because I have not been stripped of my dignity. The world did not give me my dignity and the world cannot take it away. From this perspective, Jesus is not offering us merely the grace to endure indignity, but the grace not to suffer or experience indignity at all.
  2. If anyone wants to go to the law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. In ancient times, it was forbidden to take someone’s tunic in pledge for a loan. Thus Jesus would seem to be using this example as a symbol of our rights. There are some people who are forever demanding and clinging to their rights. They clutch their privileges and will not let them go even if the common good would require it. They will go to the law rather than suffer any infringement upon their rights. The true Christian thinks more in terms of duties than rights, more of responsibilities than privileges. All this
    “personal honor” stuff is unimportant when Christ lives in us. To be sure, there are some rights necessary for the completion of our duties or for meeting our basic needs. It is unlikely that Jesus has in mind to forbid this. But as a general rule, Jesus is indicating that we can be freed of obsession over our “rights,” “dignity,” and also our personal possessions. Increasingly, we can be freed of the anger that can arise when someone might even think of touching anything that is “ours.” The more we are detached from earthly possessions, the less we get anxious or angry when these things are somehow threatened or used without our permission, or when our precious “rights” are trampled upon.
  3. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. It was legal for a Roman solider to press a person into service for one mile to carry things. Some might be bent out of shape over such indignities. Jesus offers us a generous heart that will go the extra mile. Jesus came as the servant of all; He came to serve rather than to be served. To the degree that He lives in us, we will willingly serve and not feel slighted when someone asks us to do something. Neither will we cop the “Why me?” attitude that commonly afflicts the ungenerous soul. The key gift here is a generous heart, even in situations in which others do not assign work to us fairly or appreciate our efforts sufficiently. This is of little concern for us, because we work for God.
  4. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. Many questions arise related to indiscriminate giving. In some cases, it may not be wise thing to give money simply because someone asks. But don’t miss the main point here: when Jesus lives in us, we will be more generous. We will give cheerfully and assist others gladly. We will not get bent out of shape when someone asks us for help. We may not always be able to help, but our generous heart will not begrudge the beggar; we will remain cheerful and treat him or her with respect.

Here, then, is a description of a transformation of the mind and heart. We will view things differently. We will not be so easily bent out of shape, retaliatory, or vengeful. We will be more patient, more generous, less grasping, and more giving. This is what happens when we live in a transformative relationship with Jesus.

II. Radical Requirement – Love your enemy.

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. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?

This is the acid test, the hallmark of a true Christian: love of one’s enemy. Note that the Lord links this to being a true child of God. Why? Because God loves everyone and gives gifts of sun and rain to all. If we are a “chip off the old block,” we will do the same. It’s easy to love those who love us, but a Christian is called to fulfill the Law and exceed it.

If Christ lives in us, then we will love even our enemy. Recall that Jesus loved us even when we hated Him and killed Him. Jesus said, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). Elsewhere in Scripture is written, While we were his enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son (Rom 5:10).

We should be careful not to make love an abstraction. The Lord is talking about a real transformation of our hearts. Sometimes we say silly things like this: You don’t have to like everyone but you have to love them. This turns love into something of an abstraction. God doesn’t just love me; he even likes me. The Lord is talking about a deep love that wills good things for our enemy and even works toward them.

We are called to have compassion, understanding, and even affection for those who hate us and will us evil. We may wonder how this can happen in us. How can we have affection for those who hate us? It can be so when Christ lives His life in us. We will good and do good to them who hate us, just as Jesus did.

It is also important not to sentimentalize this love. Jesus loved His enemies but did not coddle them. He spoke the truth to the Scribes and Pharisees of His day, often forcefully and uncompromisingly. We are called to a strong love, one which wants the truth for everyone, but we must give this testimony with understanding and true (not fake or false) compassion.

III. Remarkable Recapitulation – Finally, the Lord says,

So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Here is the fundamental summary, the recapitulation: God-like perfection! Nothing less will do. How could there be anything less when Christ lives His life in us? To the degree that He lives in us and the old Adam dies, we become perfect. This is the state of the saints in Heaven: they have been made perfect. Christ’s work in them is complete. The Greek word used here is τέλειός (teleios) which means complete or perfect. Thus, the emphasis is on the completion of a work in us more so than mere excellence in performance. Paul writes to the Philippians, And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6).

This sentence also serves as an open-ended conclusion to the antitheses today’s Gospel. It’s almost as if Jesus says, “I’ve only given you a few examples here. The point is to be perfect, complete in every way, totally transformed in your mind, heart, and behavior.”

And thus we return to the original theme: it ends with me. In these final two antitheses the Lord wants to break the cycle of anger, retribution, and violence. He wants the downward spiral of hatred and vengeance to end with me. When, on account of His grace, I do not retaliate, I break the cycle. When I do not escalate the bitterness or return the spite, when I refuse to allow hate to take possession of me, the cycle ends with me. Only God can do this for me.

But He does do it. I promise you in the Lord Jesus Christ that He can deliver us from anger, wrath, vengefulness, and pettiness. I can promise you because He is doing it in me. I do not boast; I am only telling you what the Lord has done. For the most part, I have been delivered from my anger, something that was once a major struggle for me. It is not any longer. I did not deliver myself—Jesus did. The promise of the Lord here is true. Only God can do it. He has said it and He will do it—if we let Him.

This song says, “I Look to you. After all my strength is gone, in you I can be strong. I look to you!”

9 Replies to “The Cycle of Hatred and Retribution Ends with Me – A Homily for the 7th Sunday of the Year”

  1. For the first two decades of my life I didn’t understand this and it was absolutely crippling. I saw and engaged in decades of people in my family trying to win arguments incited by injustices from our parents. It’s a reactive way of thinking: someone does something bad to you, and you react in kind.

    One day, inspired by Christ, some of us realized it was a setup. Winning the argument and proving you were wronged wasn’t winning because it still fed a cycle of anger and hate. Not fighting was the real victory! We started using the options God gave us instead of those laid out for us by our enemies. Everything became so much clearer and easier, and it’s only gotten better since! God (not me) has made me wiser, more forgiving, and greatly healed my wounds. All He wants is for us to play by His rules instead of Satan’s, and He’ll give us everything.

    My life is now getting better all the time in all the ways that matter. There’s a reason He wants us to do it His way: because it actually works!

  2. At ST.II.IIae.Q25.A8 St Thomas says that love of one’s enemies means not excluding our enemy from the general love of neigbor.

    But we are not to love our enemies as such: this is perverse, and contrary to charity, since it implies love of that which is evil in another.

    1. Ok, but you are leaving a lot of St Thomas’ argument out here. I have written on this topic before, and St. Thomas indicates that we are called to love our enemy but that we are not to love in them what is evil. I think you may wish to articulate his fuller argument. I don’t have time just now, but the point is here: there is more to what Thomas says than you have articulated here.

  3. God permits some people to suffer without knowing about prayer, though tempted within their limits, yet become obstinate in hatred, even unto their damnation.

    Not because there is a list of the damned like there is a list of Saints, not even Judas Iscariot, but because God tells us Hell exists and we will go there if we sin.

    We can hope in Mercy to save the dying, but cannot water down or sugar coat damnation. Instead, with hope, we must pray for sinners – ourselves and especially the dying.

    It may seem impossible for God to deliver us from hatred and Hell, but God has done the impossible before: Transubstantiation. The Miracle of Miracles sustains us.

    If someone were to offer you a cookie and say, by repeating a few words, it becomes a god, than you would call the person mad, for the cookie is still just a cookie.

    Yet we believe God is Mercy because He tells us so. So when the Word Incarnate says “This is My Body,” we believe because His words are true and eternal life.

    God’s Mercy is more than free expression, and with the Theological Virtues we see Him in the Eucharist. So we can hope in the One Who can do the impossible.

  4. “This is the acid test, the hallmark of a true Christian: love of one’s enemy. … It’s easy to love those who love us, but a Christian is called to fulfill the Law and exceed it.”
    This was a tough challenge for me when I was re-awakened to practicing my faith in my fifties. I tried rationalizing and think but, while God created us with intellects and an ability to be rational, this form of “rational” was not the same as rationalizing.
    So I turned to prayer, meditation and patience – mostly patience. My prayer and meditation is based on a serious take on the rationalization part where I use prayer to submit to God and make the meditation His property; by keeping topic, change of topic or something other than a tangeable property; as His decision.
    After going up several levels I found that the conclusion went up several levels of metaphorical “stair” type steps. Like the Twelve Steps of AA where a spiritual awakening came after thoroughly applying each step in proper sequence.
    At the end I saw two hypothetical people who had similar interests and similar priorities on those interests so that, if allowed to go through a natural process, the two would end up friends.
    Now, supposing that both are male and that a manipulative third party doesn’t want them to be friends. Suppose also that this third party, female or male, is an enemy of the ultimate leader of the two and is further motivated by this enmity to the pair’s leader.
    This enemy could tell each that the other had said derogatory things in the presence of others. He could also say things like, “If you could only see how (your potential friend) looks at your wife when your back is turned.”
    The way in which I’ve portrayed this might not seem convincing but, I am not much motivated by such sneaky desires and don’t have much skill in such trickery.
    Note, I said “…not much…” and that’s because I am not perfect but a work in progress. At any rate this comparison helped me see how brother ends up fighting brother and comrade ends up fighting comrade.
    Now, since I’ve mentioned “perfect” well, what about that, and it’s mention at the end of the chapter that’s immediately prior to the chapter that has the “Our Father”?
    Well, so many so called spiritual philosophies portray perfection as an unattainable inspiration that keeps us heading in a worthy direction, on a worthy course. Many such an “easier softer way” has lead people to destruction.
    Not to say that achieving perfection is easy, or only a bit more difficult than we’re used to. More like being in stigmata and encountering revealed infinite-ness, with nothing hidden, and being allowed to see everything but being unable to understand any of it.

  5. These passages are good, but they pose a problem when dealing with bullies. Adult bullies (also known as abusers). Bullies can smell meekness and patience a mile away – like a wolf seeing prey, they attack. If you react by not reacting, by reacting with kindness and meekness and patience, they are emboldened. They will escalate their unkindnesses, daring you and taunting you, provoking and pulling lots of injustices on you to enjoy their power over you. The only response is to stop them cold. And that means not being meek or patient, but meeting their force with force, expecting the attack and standing up to them. Sometimes you have to give them a (figurative) quick jab to the nose so they know you mean business. I think of Jesus’ actions with the Pharisees and Scribes are an example. He was sharp tongued with them, and direct. He did not try to placate them by acting like a push-over. His behavior to them was in stark contrast to those not in power, who were common folk.

    There needs to be better instruction from the Church with regards to the bullies of this world, because many women (and some men) are made victim to them by trying to follow the “turn the other cheek” and non-retaliation instructions of Jesus.

    1. Remember Jesus was the kindest and meekest and most patient of us all. Meekness is not weakness or, as you pointed out, He wouldn’t have been so direct and unafraid with the Pharisees. He met lies with truth, tricks with wisdom, and hatred with love. Sometimes that does involves some yelling, but different from an abuser’s malevolent attacks. 🙂

      There is a force and power to these things because they are of God, but it’s a force diametrically opposed to the force a bully or Pharisee would use. This is the way to break the cycle.

    2. Greetings Bee Bee – After reading your comment three really great examples of saints of heroic charity and meekness come to mind. These saints demonstrate what Monsignor Pope is teaching in this article. Bl Jerzy Popieluszko, Sts John Paul II & Maximilian Kolbe. I hope this helps. God bless you

  6. It is not often that I wish the second reading at Sunday mass came ‘after’ the Gospel – but today I really do!
    It is well known these days, I believe, that if we harbour hatred and spite, grudges for offences committed against us, and the deep and awful need we seem to have so often to ‘get back’ at those who offend us can, and does, rancour in our gut and cause us to become deeply unhappy and angry, And all of that introverted spite in us can, and does, eventually lead to us dying inside and driving out God’s Holy Spirit – and will eventually lead to a breakdown in our mental and physical well-being also.
    I personally know – like Msgr Charles, I’ve been there – trust me! And, Jesus has pulled me back and healed me – once again, trust me – He ‘will’ do it!
    I believe the second reading of this mass, where Paul is telling the Corinthians that we must understand that we are God’s temple and what will happen if we destroy His temple, is incredibly important, as he points out that, if we do destroy God’s temple, as we most certainly will if we hold on to hatred and thoughts of revenge, then God will destroy us! Not something to be taken lightly in any respect. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 –
    “16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.”
    May we all pray fervently for the grace to be given us to allow all the hatred and spite we store up inside God’s temple to come out of us – (to stop destroying ourselves!) – leaving room for the Holy Spirit to make His dwelling so that we are ‘truly’ transformed by the Lord living within us.
    Thank you Msgr Charles and God bless all, as ever . . . . .

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