Back to Basics – December 31, 2017

Howard Thurman, author, theologian and civil rights icon, wrote the quintessential post-Christmas poem. It explains this period between the joy of celebrating the birth of Christ and the beginning of a brand new year. It answers the question, “Now what?” It is called “The Work of Christmas”:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and the princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brothers,

To make music in the heart.

As we begin 2018, we embark on a journey of newness -new plans, blank calendars, adventures awaiting us – and at the same time, it is a time to “get back to basics” … to remind ourselves what the “work of Christmas” entails. After all the celebrations, after the decorations are boxed up, after the children are asleep clutching their new toys and gifts, what do we do?

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brothers,

To make music in the heart.

When all is said and done, we are called to the basics of the Christian faith: to love God and to love our neighbor. How do we do that? I suggest we start with forgiveness.

So today we look at this section of Matthew, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as we start the new year. Now, Jesus was a great teacher, but he had a peculiar way of teaching: reminding the disciples and his followers of the Torah Law, and then tweaking the Law to push it even farther.

Matthew 5:38-48

38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

So in this passage we are introduced to a Law from the book of Deuteronomy: It is actually taken from Deuteronomy 19: 18b-21 and as I read this I will ask you to answer this question: In what arena does this law take place? Who is the “criminal”? the wrong-doer?

Deuteronomy 19: 18b-21

If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, 19then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you. 21Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Who is the wrong-doer? A false witness! This rule takes place in the arena of a trial – a legal proceeding…  So the villain is not a murderer or a terrorist, but one who lies under oath. This is a law to ensure justice. It is a law that expresses a commitment to justice and it ensures that the penalty of lying under oath is not arbitrary, making the punishment more severe than the crime. “You shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other.”

But that action, the retaliation for “bearing false witness”, even in this context… is not okay with Jesus. Where Deuteronomy says, “Show no pity,” Jesus insists, “Turn the other cheek.”

Here, in this lesson from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus actually overrules the Torah. In the other circumstances – the laws about murder and adultery – Jesus pushes the Torah further, but in this case, he actually changes The Law. At least this little part of the Law called the lex talionis. The lex talionis is the law of retaliation and it was an attempt to enact fair justice among the people of ancient Israel. Wherever harm is committed—whether intentional (cf. Leviticus 24:20) or not (cf. Exodus 21:24)—the judges of ancient Israel were expected to authorize the law of retaliation.(1) And some commentators note that the lex talionis (“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) may have originated as a rule limiting the vengeance that might be exacted by the aggrieved party: that is no more than an eye for an eye.” (2) But even if the “punishment fits the crime…” that’s not good enough for Jesus.

38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Now, this reference to the right cheek is a reference not to a punch, but to a slap with the back of the hand, which was a particularly degrading insult. (3) The retaliation for such an act would be legal action… but Jesus says no retaliation is necessary. In fact, if this person insults you, by slapping you on the one cheek, you – as children of God, as followers of Christ – are not to seek retaliation, but offer them the other cheek as well.

This is not an easy task. Forgiveness takes strength of character and courage to risk ourselves for the sake of peace and reconciliation. That is not easy.

We all suffer wrong-doing. We all suffer humiliation and hurt, painful remarks and hurtful actions. But when the subject of “forgiveness” is broached in the church, someone inevitably raises the impossible question: What about Osama bin Laden, do we forgive him? What about Hitler? Is he deserving of our forgiveness? What about terrorists and those who’ve done us harm as a country? What kind of forgiveness do they deserve?

And while some theologians may be equipped to tackle those examples, I will address today the small but significant wrongs that are done to us; the grudges we hold for years; the hostile feelings; the hurts of long ago; those disappointments, painful moments and the vestiges of bad relationships that prevent us from moving forward.

Forgiveness disguises itself to be an act we do for others. And sometimes it is. When I have said something to hurt you: you offer me forgiveness – you GIVE to me a gift of mercy and understanding and empathy. Thinking, “I say stupid things too. I’m sure she didn’t mean it. You know even if she did mean it, she has a lot to learn and so I feel bad for her, that she is not as enlightened as I am.”  Forgiveness, mercy, pardon” these are gifts we give to others.

And yet, they are also GIFTS to ourselves. When we hold onto these small hurts, these grudges, these pains from the past, we damage ourselves. It is as if, when we are hurt, small cuts in our soul appear bleeding and painful. And forgiveness is the stitching that sews up the gaping wound. Forgiveness is the bandage that stops the bleeding. Forgiveness helps in the healing, the mending of ourselves, our souls and our relationships. Forgiveness helps facilitate the healing, but it does not erase the pain. As with physical wounds, healing leaves a scar – a reminder of what has happened and a reminder of the journey our healing has undergone. Forgiveness is not an immediate occurrence or a surface feeling, it is a long journey of small steps of love, reconciliation and understanding.

“Bound to Forgive” recounts the ordeal of Father Lawrence Martin Jenco, an American hostage held in Lebanon from 1984 to 1991.  Sent to Lebanon to head the Beirut office of Catholic Relief Services in 1984, Father Jenco intended to serve the poor by providing food, clothing and medicine to the needy of Beirut without religious discrimination.

But shortly after his arrival, Jenco was kidnapped and taken hostage by a fundamentalist group and, as his captivity endured for hours and days and years, the words of Jesus on the cross became more and more vital to his survival: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” These words became his mantra and forgiveness his mission.

At the end of his captivity, one of his guards, named Sayeed,  who had at times brutalized him, came to ask Jenco for his forgiveness. Jenco was overwhelmed and answered: “Sayeed, there were times I hated you. I was filled with anger and revenge for what you did to me and my brothers. But Jesus said on a mountaintop that I was not to hate you. I was to love you. Sayeed, I need to ask God’s forgiveness and yours.” (4)

The words of Jesus urged Father Jenco to forgive Sayeed and to ask for the forgiveness of the guard who caused him pain and heartache, whose actions threatened his life every day for eight years. But, Jenco says, he has forgiven, but not forgotten.

“I don’t believe that forgetting is one of the signs of forgiveness. I forgive, but I remember. I do not forget the pain, the loneliness, the ache, the terrible injustice. But I do not remember it to inflict guilt, or some future retribution. Having forgiven, I am liberated. I need no longer to be determined by the past. I move into the future free to imagine new possibilities.” (5)

Forgiveness, mercy, pardon is a gift we give to others and a gift we give to ourselves – to allow ourselves to heal and to be free to imagine new possibilities. Retribution is no longer necessary. Retaliation is futile. Jesus tells us to “turn the other cheek” for the sake of others and for our OWN sake.  If we are to play a part in peacemaking, in reconciliation, in healing the world, we must begin with healing ourselves and the small pains of our souls.

Today, let us hear this new lesson. Today, let us begin the journey of forgiveness, so that we can be free to embrace all that this new year has in store for us. And may God bless us today and throughout this new year.

  1. Commentary on Gospel by Emerson Powery, found on
  2. Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of The New Testament, San Francisco: Harper, 1996, 324.
  3. Hays, 325.
  4. George Emile Irani, “Bound to Forgive: The Pilgrimage of Reconciliation of a Beirut Hostage” in National Catholic Reporter, Sept 8, 1995 found on
  5. Lawrence Martin Jenco, O.S.M., Bound to Forgive: The Pilgrimage of Reconciliation of a Beirut Hostage, Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1995, 135.