The saying from our gospel that we all know so well, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It is a command that has often been used to justify our brutality. In fact, that statue which was well known in the ancient world was used to reduce brutality. In a time when there was little or no police presence, protection came from membership in a tribe or family. If one member of a tribe or family was attacked, the other members would respond.
A problem the ancient societies faced was to control the retaliation so that it did not escalate out of sight. This statue was saying that retaliation must be proportionate to the offense. That there must be a rough equality between the two. The statue was aimed not at excusing brutality, but at controlling vendetta. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth was a step forward in the civilization of humankind. But Jesus sees something better, he knows that God is not vengeful, that God is not a tit for tat Judge. And if we are to be like Him, nothing of vengefulness must be found in us.
His commandment is clear, aggression and violence are not to be returned. They are to be absorbed. His advice must appear to many as absurd, he talks of turning the other cheek. Offering the thief your coat when he has stolen your shirt. It all sounds rather farfetched, but the heart of the teaching is….that violence, in the long run, does not solve anything and only makes the problem worse. It grows like a cancer, it becomes a poisoned well. This vicious circle continues until someone with enough sense tries a different approach like forgiveness. Simon Weisenthal-Biography-Sunflower.
Over eighty members of his family died in a Nazi concentration camp. He saw his own mother machine-gunned right in front of him. He tells the story that one day a nurse came out to where he was working. Tapped him on the shoulder and told him to follow her. He was taken to a hospital room where a member of the dreaded SS Troop lay dying, he was just a young man. He told Simon how he had been in charge of a unit dealing with Jews-this meant just one thing-herding them into a building, douse the building with gasoline and set it on fire.
Then machine-gun anyone who tried to escape. The young trooper had been a catholic before he became a Nazi and he began guilt over what he had done. He had requested that a Jew be sent to him. Any Jew, male or female, he needed a representative Jew. He begged Simon on behalf of his people for forgiveness. He said he was not born a murderer and he did not want to die one. Simon Weisenthal said the only response he could give was to get up and leave the room. Without saying a word, without granting forgiveness and for the rest of his life he was troubled by his non-response.
What would you have done…that is a question that we could talk about all day. And so, I would like to ask you another question. Have you ever been in the place of the Nazi officer, not mass murder? Are there any Simon Weisenthal’s in your life who can not and will not forgive you? People you may have hurt so badly that they want nothing to do with you ever again. And they are most likely those closest to you. And we carry that guilt and often turn into ourselves and we can not move forward with life.
If you are Christian, it is then when we turn to Jesus Christ. He steps into the shoes of those who can not forgive. He comes to us broken as we are and says, all is forgiven and He loves us. When people will not forgive, Jesus will. When people can not forgive, Jesus will. When people are unable to forgive, Jesus will. Look at the gospel of the prodigal son, when the son repented the father went to meet him. Embraced him and welcomed him back to the family. And so we have two questions.
If you are Simon Weisenthal, the gospel challenges you with the imperative and the demand to forgive, forgive your enemies. If you are the young nazi, and you badly want forgiveness and the people in your life can not or will not or are unable to forgive. Then turn to the gospel and you find out that Jesus will stand in their place. This is also, I suggest, why He invented the Sacrament of Penance. It is the place that Jesus has set up where we are reconciled to the Father. It is the one place where we can be reassured that in our broken and dying moments the Lord will come and say, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.”
I suppose in the end it comes down to how seriously we take the prayers we say every day. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Scripture tells us, when you come to the altar if you have anything against your brother or sister. Leave your gift at the altar, and first go and be reconciled with your brother or sister. Have you ever done that? Do you need to?