Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18 1 Corinthians 3:16-23 Matthew 5:38-48
On the Gospel, Long suffering, the Forgotten Virtue
The virtue of longsuffering ranked high in the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament. The word, which has no exact translation in modern English, is itself a graphic translation of a Greek word that meant the ability to take violence, insult and aggression without descending to the level of the aggressors so as to get even with them and do unto them as they are doing unto you. Modern English Bibles translate it as “endurance” or “meekness” or “fortitude,” but none of these graphically captures the idea in the same way as does “long-suffering.” It is the virtue that is associated with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jnr and generally referred to as “non-violence.”
The early Christians extolled the virtue of longsuffering because it was the virtue that gave them the inner strength to go through the tortures of the persecution without either denying their Christian faith or trying to pay back their unjust aggressors in their own coin. Those among them who did not have the virtue of longsuffering either denied their faith under torture or looked for a way to fight back. In today’s Gospel reading taken from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus recommends longsuffering as a way of life for his followers.
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matthew 5:38-41)
Legally speaking, the offended party is entitled to redress. People reserve the right to get even with those trying to exploit or take undue advantage of them. To get even, however, remains a right and not a duty. Jesus is inviting his followers to give up their right to get even. Why? Mahatma Gandhi explains it so well: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” An ever-widening spiral of hate and violence threatens to engulf our world today. There is only one way to break this vicious circle, and that is by some people deciding to absorb the violence without passing it on to others. This is what Jesus did on the cross when he forgave his executioners: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
The virtue of longsuffering does not mean that Christians are to turn a blind eye on abusive situations or fail to work for a more just society. On the contrary, it means that we are to imitate Jesus who, in his personal life, gave up the right to get even while at the same time condemning all forms of abuse or exploitation of the weak.
Longsuffering is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It is not a sign of cowardice but of courage. Jesus enjoins longsuffering on his followers not because they are helpless or because there is nothing they can do about the situation but because God himself is a longsuffering God and we are called to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)
God is perfect because he is longsuffering. For us children of God, to be perfect as our heavenly father, therefore, means for us to be longsuffering in our dealing with those who oppose us and see us as enemies. But we are not to oppose such people in turn or see them as enemies. Rather, we are to see them as our misled neighbours who do not know what they are doing, and pray for them as Jesus did.
In a world that increasingly believes that triumphing over one’s enemies is the mark of authentic Christian faith, Jesus today teaches us that the mark of a true child of God is the virtue of longsuffering. Let us, therefore, resolve to live by this godly virtue. We can begin with this prayer: “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto thine.” Amen.
On the Epistle, The Error of Christian Individualism
The spread of individualism in God’s name is a growing concern in Africa and other parts of the world. The problem is complicated by the fact that this individualism is propagated by Bible carrying preachers who misread the Bible that they carry. Whereas the Word of God is an invitation to community, these unenlightened enthusiasts read the message of the Bible as an invitation to individualism. Today’s second reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians is a good text to demonstrate how such preachers unwittingly commit this error.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
Passages like this are read to remind believers that every one of them is God’s temple, that the only temple that God really cares about is the temple in their hearts, and that the church as a community of believers is secondary or nonessential in comparison to the kingdom of God in their hearts. In support of this interpretation, they cite Luke 17:20-21, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” But there is a basic error in this interpretation.
Whereas the Greek of the New Testament makes a clear distinction between “you” when it refers to one person and when it refers to a group of persons, modern English has lost the distinction between the singular and the plural “you.” Whereas preachers generally tend to presume that the “you” in such statements as “you are God’s temple” or “the kingdom of God is within you” refer to the individual believer, the fact of the matter is that they refer to the plural, the collective “you,” the community of believers, the church. The community of believers, the church is God’s temple. The kingdom of God is within the community of believers, the church. These statements refer to the group and not to the individual. Of course they do apply to the individuals that make up the group, but only in so far as they are part of the group and identify themselves with it.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing the problem of splinter groups within the Corinthian church identifying themselves primarily with Paul or Apollos or Cephas to the point where the unity of the church of Christ is jeopardised. By reminding them that the entire united community constitutes the temple of God, he is warning them about the perils of going it alone either as individuals or as splinter groups separated from the larger, united body of believers.
You can see why they are wrong who preach individualism as what Jesus and Paul taught. By teaching that the kingdom of God is in the heart of each and every believer, they relativise the church and make it seem unnecessary. By teaching that each and every believer is the living temple of God, they encourage a go-it-alone or a do-it-yourself Christianity. This, however, is very far from the teaching of Jesus and St. Paul, which centred on the community, with individuals sharing in the blessings of the community if and to the extent that they associate with the community. Jesus did not promise the individual separated from the community that the kingdom of God is within him or her. St. Paul did not teach the Christian lone ranger that he or she is the temple of God. These promises and blessings are true first for the community of faith, and then for the individual in so far as he or she identifies with the faith community.
St. Paul reserves a very strong admonition for Christians who use the faith as a cover for individualism: “Stop deceiving yourselves” (verse 18). May the Lord enlighten us all who believe in his name to overcome the temptation of the Corinthians, the temptation to follow a doctrine simply because it suits our ideology or lifestyle, and the courage to make an about-turn and follow the true teachings of Jesus and his Apostles in the Scriptures, through Christ our Lord. Amen.