A HOMILY DELIVERED TO ST. PETER’S PARISH (HOME OF CATHOLIC ) AT AMOKWE NSUKKA IN ENUGU NIGERIA.
May the Lord be praised both now and forever more. Amen! I gathered the confidence to preach this difficult gospel truth among you because on my way to your parish, I saw the motto of your Church on the signboard written as “THE HOME OF CATHOLIC”. My confidence is predicated on the fact that it is only on a soil that has a Catholic or true Christian fertility that such a gospel can germinate. Therefore, under the auspices of the gospel of today (Matthew 5:38-48), It is my pleasure to present to us the oldest law in the world. That law is known as the LEX TALIONIS, and it may be described as the law of tit for tat.
It appears in the earliest known code of laws, the Code of Hammurabi, who reigned in Babylon from 2285-2242 B.C. It is a law that made a serious distinction between the gentleman and the workman. The principle is clear and apparently simple—IF A MAN HAS INFLICTED AN INJURY ON ANY PERSON, AN EQUIVALENT INJURY SHALL BE INFLICTED UPON HIM. This law can be found in different expressions in the following passages (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19,20, Deuteronomy 19:21).
However, it is expedient to note that far from being a savage and bloodthirsty law, this law’s original aim was definitely the limitation of vengeance. Therefore, seen against its historical setting this is not a savage law, but a law of mercy. This is predicated on the fact that it was never a law which gave a private individual the right to extract vengeance. Rather it was always intended as a guide for a judge in the assessment of the penalty which any violent or unjust deed must receive.
In regard to injury, sometimes, in an attempt to avoid the displacement of a good eye or a good tooth for a bad eye or a bad tooth, it was assessed at a money value. That is to say, the injured man is looked on as a slave to be sold in the market place. His value before and after the injury was assessed, and the man responsible for the injury had to pay the difference.
It should be very importantly recalled that the LEX TALIONIS is no means the whole of Old testament ethics. There are glimpses and even splendours of mercy in the Old Testament. For instance, Leviticus 19:18 advises us against taking vengeance, Proverbs 25:21 conscientizes us to give bread to our hungry enemy, while Proverbs 24:29 reprimands us not to say, I will do to him as he has done to me. The above assertions of mercy in OT can therefore prove to us that the LEX TALIONIS was aimed at limitation of vengeance. It is In fact, the beginning of mercy. However, In the gospel of today, our Blessed Lord obliterated the very principle of that law, because retaliation, however controlled and restricted, has no place in the Christian life.
Against this backdrop therefore, our Blessed Lord Jesus abolishes the old law of limited vengeance and introduces the new spirit of non-resentment and of non-retaliation. So, He goes on to take three examples of the Christian spirit in operation. And in each of the example given here, there is far more than meets the eye as we shall observe below.
First, turning the other cheek also. It will be very foolish for a Christian to literally turning his or her cheeks for a slapping exercise to a heart hardened person. Now according to Jewish Rabbinic Law, to hit a man with the back of the hand was twice as insulting as to hit him with the flat of the hand.
So then, what our Blessed Lord is saying is this: Even if a man should direct at you the most deadly and calculated insult, you must on no account retaliate, and you must on no account resent it. Besides, history reveals that just as our blessed Lord was called friend of tax collectors and harlots, so also early Christians were called cannibals and incendiaries, accused of immorality, gross and shameless because their service included the Love Feast.
It is also on record that When Shaftesbury undertook the cause of the poor and the oppressed, he was warned and insulted, When Wilberforce began on his crusade to free the slaves, slanderous rumors that he was a cruel husband and a wife-beater. Jesus tells us here never to be discouraged or retaliate on any account. Meanwhile, the true Christian has forgotten what it is to be insulted; he has learned from his master to accept any insult.
Second, If anyone tries to take away our tunic in a law suit, we must offer him our cloak also. It will be very funny for one to remove his inner cloak and offer to someone who has already taken his tunic. Of course, on the long run, it will be difficult to distinguish between such a Christian and a mad man, since both of them are naked. The point is this, according to Exodus-22:26-27, by right a man’s cloak could not be taken permanently from him. So, our Blessed Lord means here that a true Christian never stands upon his rights. The Christian thinks not of his rights, but of his duties; not of his privileges, but of his responsibilities. We should rather allow God the fight for our right, which will certainly be ours as long as we remain faithful to our civic responsibilities.
The third example is: If you are compelled to go one mile, go two miles. The Greek word used for to compel is the verb aggareuein. It is a word with a Persian history. That, in fact, is what happened to Simon of Cyrene, when he was compelled(aggareuein) to bear the cross of Jesus. What Our Blessed Lord is saying here is: Don’t be always thinking of your liberty to do as you like; be always thinking of your duty and your privilege to be of service to others, gladly rendered and not as a grim duty to be resented. This therefore implies that there are two ways of doing things; doing as to make it clear that one hates the whole thing, or doing it with a smile, with a gracious courtesy. A true Christian is one who lives by the second.
Finally, our Blessed Lord says, do not turn away from he who wishes to borrow. At it’s highest the Jewish law of giving was a lovely thing in Deuteronomy 15:7-11. In that very passage, the point about seventh year is that in every seventh year, there was a cancellation of debts; and the grudging and the calculating man might refuse to lend anything when the seventh year is near, lest the debt be cancelled and he lose what he had given. It was on that passage that the Jewish law of giving was founded. There are Five principles that govern giving: Giving must not be refused; Giving must befit the man to whom the gift is given; Giving must be carried out privately and secretly; The manner of giving must befit the character and temperament of the recipient; Giving was at once a privilege and an obligation for in reality all giving is nothing less than giving to God.
At this juncture, I wish to reflect on what C.G MONTEFIORE, the Jewish scholar, calls the central and most famous section of the sermon on the mount (Mathew 5:43-48). And that is LOVING OUR ENEMIES.
Special characteristic of Greek language is its richness in synonyms. For instance there are four different words for love, Storge meaning family love, Eros meaning sexual love which Sophocles describes as terrible longing, Philia which is the warmest and the best Greek word for love. From the verb Philien meaning to fondle or to kiss. And above all, Agape which is unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill. In agape, we will never allow any bitterness against our beloved to invade our hearts. This is the very type that our Blessed Lord recommended in this passage.
In this pasage, our Blessed Lord Jesus never asked us to love our enemies in the same way as we love our dearest and our nearest. The difference is clear. In the case of our nearest and our dearest we cannot help loving them; we speak of falling in love. While in the case of our enemies, love is not only something of the heart; it is also something of the will. Agape therefore, does not mean a feeling of the heart, it means a determination of the mind, the power to love those whom we do not like. The will power to love those who rape our wives, mothers and daughters, to love those who are killing our brothers and refusing us from enjoying the fruits of our labour in the farm, to show love to a class of people who have no value for human lives. How possible could this teaching permeate the heart of a Nigerian Christian, in his relationship with the herdsmen?
In response to this, it must be immediately noted that agape (Christian love) does not mean that we allow people to do absolutely as they like, and that we leave them quite uncontrolled. That is a wrong notion of agape. Besides, No one would say that a parent really loves his child if he let’s the child do as he likes. If we regard a person with invincible goodwill, it will often mean that we must punish him, that we must restrain, discipline and protect him against himself. It is in this context that we could understand our Father bishop, Godfrey Igwebuike Onah, when he says that if our enemies succeeds in making us to hate them, then they have conquered us Completely. Meanwhile, loving our enemies does not negate the fact of disciplining their excesses as a loving parent would do to naughty child. Meanwhile, in an attempt to protect the gratuitous gift of life which God has bestowed on you, such a loved enemy who does not have value for his could loose it as a result of manslaughter.
Agape will also mean that we do not punish them to satisfy our desire for revenge but in order to make them better men. Moreover, It must be noted that Jesus laid this love down as a basis for personal relationships and not just intertribal relationship. Thus, this is possible for a Christian who has the grace of Jesus Christ. Grace enable him to have this unconquerable benevolence and this invincible goodwill.
IN ADDITION, We are bidden to pray for them. This is because, we cannot go on hating another man in the presence of God. The surest way of killing bitterness is to pray for the man we are tempted to hate. But unfortunately, the nature of a Christian prayer today has lost the sense of Christian love as we advise God on the type of punishment that should be avenged upon our enemies.
But why must we extend Agape to loving our enemies. The reason is is very simple and tremendous- it is that such a love makes a man like God. The action of God is the action of unconquerable benevolence. As the gospel rightly pointed out in verse 45 that God makes his sun to rise on the good and the evil; he sends his rain on the just and the unjust. The love of God is such that he can never take pleasure in the destruction of any of the creatures whom his hands have made. In God, there is this universal benevolence even towards men who have broken his law and broken his heart. Our Blessed Lord says that we must have this love that we may become the sons of our Father who is in Heaven. Becoming sons of God simply means becoming godlike.
It is in this kind of love (agape) that we have the key to one of the most difficult sentences in the New Testament. And that is; You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The Greek word for perfect is teleios. The Greek idea of perfection is functional. Teleios is the adjective formed from the noun telos which means an end. That is to say, a man is perfect if he realizes the purpose for which he was created and sent into the world. A very simple analogy goes thus, suppose in my house there is a screw loose and I want to tighten and adjust this screw, I go out and buy a screw driver which exactly fits the grip of my hand; I lay the screwdriver on the slot of the screw, and I find that it exactly fits. In the Greek sense, and especially in the New Testament sense, that screwdriver is teleois, because it exactly fulfilled the purpose for which I desired and bought it.
For what purpose was man created? The Bible leaves us in no doubt as to that. Gen.1:26 tells us that Man was created to be like God. The characteristic of God is this universal benevolence, this unconquerable goodwill, this constant seeking of the highest good of every man. It is when man reproduces in his life the unwearied, forgiving sacrificial benevolence of God, that he becomes like God, and is therefore perfect in the New Testament sense of the word. To put at its simplest, the man who cares most for men is the most perfect man. We realize our manhood, we enter upon Christian perfection, when we learn to forgive as God forgives, and to love as God loves. Through incarnation, Christ took our humanity in order to teach us what it means to be human. He Died to save his persecutors. Let us take up our cross and follow him for HE KNOWS THE WAY!