We give up violence and war, but we can't become passive and let evil develop

by Thomas Gumbleton

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On this third Sunday of Lent, we continue to explore by trying to hear the Scriptures deeply, the ways that we are to respond to the call of Jesus at the beginning of Lent: "Change your lives. The reign of God is at hand." And today's lessons really offer us a couple of significant, and indeed difficult, ways that we have to try to change.

Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalms 19:8, 9, 10, 11
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
John 2:13-25
Full text of the readings

The first lesson today from the Book of Exodus has revealed to us God's commandments and the law, the Torah, by which the Jewish people entered in, made a commitment to follow that law of God, and entered into a covenant with God. "I will be your God, you will be my people," and the people would show their acceptance of this covenant by fulfilling the law that God spelled out for them.

And later on, when Jesus came, the law had deteriorated in many ways, and the system had become very legalistic. And we remember from various parts of the Gospels how Jesus seemed at times to disregard the law, to transcend the law, to act some ways even against the law. But at one point, he explained to his disciples: "I have not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it." And if we listen just to one commandment today and go on to explore the Scriptures a little bit, we see one of the ways in which Jesus was fulfilling the law, going beyond what the commandments say.

In the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus really spells out his value system, he says, in a series ... of a number of points. But the one I think we should emphasize today is, "You have heard that it was said of old, thou shalt not kill." A commandment: Thou shalt not kill. "But I say to you" -- here is where Jesus is going beyond the law, fulfilling it -- "I say to you, do not even be angry with your brother or sister."

In other words, do not harbor anger, hatred, a spirit of revenge in your heart. And he says, "Even if you're going to the altar to offer your gift, you're coming to worship God, and there you remember your brother or sister has something against you. Go first and be reconciled with your brother or sister. Only then come and offer your gift."

That's how Jesus is going beyond the law. Thou shalt not kill -- of course not, but do not even let anger, hatred in your heart, ferment that can lead to that killing. The first time you recognize, and even again it's such an important moment -- you're going to offer your gift, you're going to worship God, you remember your brother or sister has something against you -- stop. Nothing is more important, Jesus is telling us, than that reconciliation between a brother and sister, and that for all of us to be at peace with one another, to be willing to forgive and ask forgiveness, to bring about reconciliation.

And this week, haven't we had an extraordinary example of kind of a choice presented to us? President [Barack] Obama has been working diligently to try to eliminate the dangers of a nuclear war in the Middle East, working diligently to make a treaty with the country of Iran to dismantle the progress that they've made on developing nuclear weapons. But then we have this argument in the Congress. There are those who say, "It will never work; diplomacy won't work. They're going to lie to us. They're going to deceive us."

Well, don't you think the people on the other side would think the same thing about us? You know, if we go into that mode, we'll never be rid of the weapons that can destroy our planet at any moment. We have to begin to use diplomacy, go be reconciled with your brother or sister, and that means negotiation. That means listening to their side, offering our side, gradually coming to an agreement and not follow the way of using force to destroy, to begin a war that could easily develop into a war between the so-called super powers.

President Obama, it seems to me, is following what Jesus has asked: Go and be reconciled. Negotiate, use diplomacy, respect your brother and sister, and listen to them. Offer them your assurances, accept their assurances. Make a treaty that can be enforced and be viewed but that could prevent further developments and development of these weapons of mass destruction.

It seems to me, if we listen to Jesus, we should be offering strong support to what President Obama is trying to do and reject those calls to war, to bombing, to destroying the facilities of the Iranian people where they're trying to develop nuclear energy to provide energy for their country. Yes, we want to prevent another nation from getting nuclear weapons, but perhaps we should be trying to do what President [John F.] Kennedy did with the Soviet Union back in 1963. As he put it, "I don't want to have an arms race with the Soviet Union. I want to enter into a peace race -- step by step dismantling these weapons of mass destruction."

We should be continuing that path step by step, assuring that another country does not develop nuclear weapons but even beginning to think about how we have to dismantle our own arsenal, together with the other countries in the world, so that we can have a world free of such weapons. It will never happen if we continue to have a belligerent attitude, build up a spirit of hatred, distrust. That will only lead to war, and ultimately could lead to a nuclear war.

Today, I think as we listen to Jesus telling us, "I've come to fulfill the law, not to destroy it," we need to try to enter into the spirit of Jesus. Move beyond that spirit of hatred and revenge and vengeance, and work toward a genuine reconciliation and peace. But now, there's also the Gospel lesson today where Jesus has gone into the temple and acted in a way that I think shocks us.

He seems angry. He overturns the tables of the money changers. He drives out the animals. He puts together a whip of cords to threaten them, drive them out. "Don't make my father's house a den of thieves, a marketplace." What's happening here? Well, Jesus had come into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week, and according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, this event took place the last week of the life of Jesus.

And he had come into the temple area after he had entered Jerusalem as a king. People wanted him to be a king, but he showed them a different way of how to be a king, because instead of coming in on a war horse, which they would have wanted, he rode in on the back of a donkey, a beast of burden, fulfilling a prophecy, as the Gospels point out from Zechariah: "coming into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey, bringing peace and not war."

And so Jesus had come into Jerusalem with that spirit, but then he found this injustice going on inside the temple itself. And I think why this is a good juxtaposition to the first part of our lesson today, our reflection today, is because sometimes when we hear Jesus saying, "Don't use power and force and might. Don't go to war," we think he's asking us to be passive. Passive -- no, that's not Jesus.

When Jesus was confronted with injustice, with the poor being exploited, Jesus got angry, as prophets down through the history of the Jewish people got angry when the rich were exploiting the poor. And so Jesus wants us to be clear. Yes, we give up violence, we give up force, we give up war, but we don't become passive and let evil, injustice, oppression develop and destroy people. And so Jesus acted with anger; anger's not a sin. Sometimes we think, we even confess anger as a sin. Well, it can be if we let it become uncontrolled anger.

Anger is an emotion. It's part of what we are as a human being. It's an emotion that has a good purpose. It moves us to action. See, part of our problem in the world, as Pope Francis has pointed out more than once, is what he calls the globalization of indifference. ... There are hundreds of millions of people being oppressed, treated unjustly, [and we have] an economic system that works against the poor. So few have so much; so many have so little in this world in which we live. And it's because of unjust structures, an economic system that causes the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer.

Ever since the beginning of Pope Francis' time as bishop of Rome, he has been speaking out about this, urging us not to be indifferent to the plight of the poor. He is calling us, as he has repeated, that we need to be a poor church for the poor. That's a hard lesson for many of us, that somehow we have to begin to think of our wealth in a different way. It's not really mine or ours; everything in the world is a gift from God. God made the world for all, not for a few.

And isn't it important that we don't just not steal from people, but we also dismantle structures of injustice that cause people to be poor? Yes, Jesus came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it, and urges us change our lives, or as he says, "Change your lives." Follow the Gospel; enter into the reign of God, which is breaking forth, by living according to this way of Jesus -- the fulfillment of the law that we heard in the first lesson today and moving us to a whole new way of living, of acting.

Our second lesson reminds us that this teaching of Jesus to some people seemed foolish. Paul, in writing to the church of Corinth, where it's like he cries out, "Here am I preaching a crucified Christ. A crucified Christ; a Christ without wealth, a Christ without power, a Christ who is diminished and humiliated, scorned."

Paul says: "I'm preaching this Christ who is pouring forth love upon all of us, upon all of creation, as he gives himself over to those who hate his way, and allows himself to be tortured and put to death." Only, of course, to rise again and to bring about the fulfillment of God's way.

Paul says yes to the Jews, this way of Jesus -- the way of love, forgiveness, even to those hating you, putting you to death. "This way of Jesus is a scandal," Paul says to the Jews, to have such an awe of God. They cannot, it seems, comprehend. And even we can't actually comprehend a God who had so deeply entered into human history, become one of us in every way, give himself over to death, even the ignominious death of the cross. That does seem a scandal, and yet this is what God has done.

And so to the Jewish people, it was a scandal, as Paul pointed out. And to the so-called wise people, the Greeks, the philosophers, it was just plain foolishness. But finally, Paul says: "The weakness of God is stronger than human strength. The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom." That's our second lesson today.

I hope we can accept this profound truth that the weakness of God, as portrayed by Jesus loving his enemies, refusing to retaliate to get even, reaching out to reconcile and to love -- that way of Jesus -- that that is true strength and true wisdom. And when we begin to act according to this way of Jesus, the reign of God will be breaking forth into our world.

Everyone will begin to have an opportunity for a full human life, peace and joy, fullness of life. The reign of God. During the last weeks now of Lent, I hope we continue to bring about our conversion to follow Jesus, who has not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it, to show us the way to make the reign of God break forth.

[Homily given at St. Leo Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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