7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 23, 2014
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.
- Fr. Munachi Ezeogu, CSSP