by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens
Thank you so much for your kind birthday wishes. I am blessed to have such a loving and caring community in which to work and worship. As I begin my 52nd year of living, I begin today with St. Francis’ Prayer for peace, attributed to the 13th-century saint. It begins:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Saint Francis insists that, “in pardoning, we are pardoned.” Being an instrument of peace means that we create peace in our hearts, in our relationships, in our world… and we do that by pardoning others. In forgiving others, we are forgiven…. And Jesus too encourages us to “forgive as we have been forgiven.” But there is a voice inside our heads that refutes this teaching… that says, “That’s not FAIR! I am RIGHT! Stand up for yourself! You don’t have to take this!” We want to be strong and powerful, to put others on notice that they should be afraid of us… Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek.” And we say, “No.”
So today we look at this section of Luke chapter 6, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, beginning at verse 27:
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to 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
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.
Jesus here, is overusing the Torah. Where Deuteronomy says, “Show no pity,” Jesus insists, “Turn the other cheek.”
This little part of the Law is called the lex talionis – 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.
‘If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.’
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 to a Jew. (3, 325) 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, 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.
And although pardoning -forgiveness -is difficult and painful – it can help us move forward. You see, 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 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.” (3)
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.” (4)
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.
‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.
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. Today let us reach out to the new possibilities God has in store for us. Today, may we show pardon, as we have been pardoned by God. Amen.
- Commentary on Gospel by Emerson Powery, found on http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=2/20/2011#tab4
- Hays, 324.
- George Emile Irani, “Bound to Forgive: The Pilgrimage of Reconciliation of a Beirut Hostage” in National Catholic Reporter, Sept 8, 1995 found on http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1141/is_n39_v31/ai_17359853/
- Lawrence Martin Jenco, O.S.M., Bound to Forgive: The Pilgrimage of Reconciliation of a Beirut Hostage, Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1995, 135.