This is the text of my homily for Feb. 24, the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. I don’t usually post my homily online, but since weather kept so many people from joining us for Mass and since I kind of like it, I’m posting it. Always remember, how I preach it doesn’t always coincide with the text. – TL
Alan Dershowitz is someone some of you may know. He is a professor of Constitutional law at Harvard Law School and a fairly regular presence on Fox News Channel and CNN. The fact that you see him regularly on CNN and Fox News Channel might suggest, correctly, that he is sometimes controversial. True, but he’s not too far afield. Usually.
Several years ago Dershowitz wrote a novel that was quite intriguing, a morality play really. The main character is Max Menuchen, a fictional professor of Bible at Harvard Divinity School. The story begins as Max is a young boy growing up in Lithuania. It’s an April evening in 1942 and Max and his family are sitting down to celebrate the Passover Sedar meal. Max’s grandfather, Mordechai, tells Max’s younger sister to open the door to greet Elijah. As is the custom of Sedar meals, there is an empty spot set at the table for Elijah, or whoever might appear at the door to share the meal.
The sister, excited by this honor of possibly welcoming Elijah, opens the door and finds, not Elijah, but rather the frightening, expansive presence of Marcelus Prandus, a captain in a Lithuanian military force collaborating with Hitler’s regime. Prandus and his troops order the entire Menuchen family into a truck and they are taken to a remote field, they and several other townspeople are give shovels and are ordered to dig a sizeable hole. Then, Prandus, beginning with the smallest child begins shooting every person in the group, their bodies shoved into the hole. Throughout the violent ordeal, Mordechai, the grandfather is shouting, Nekama! – “take revenge!”
Somehow, remarkably, Max survives, crawls out of the grave, makes his way to safety, and finally to the United States. Now, more than 50 years later, Max discovers that Prandus, the militia leader, is living just 20 miles away, dying of cancer. Now, Max, who has never so much as been stopped for speeding, is confronted with an extraordinary dilemma between what he knows to be just by the norms of society and what he feels in his gut to be right by other, undefined laws.
We might have some idea as to how this story turns out. We have heard similar stories before. Situations, real and fictional, in which people endure unconscionable horror, pain, loss, terror, violence. And, yet, somehow, from somewhere, those who’ve endured the trauma are able to reconcile, to confront their attacker, to forgive.
That’s the direction we’d probably expect of Max’s story: Max confronting Prandus; a dramatic, emotional, in-your-face showdown in which Prandus is brought to his knees in repentance for his horrible offense; Max remarkably able to overcome the words of his grandfather that have echoed through his mind for all those years. They reconcile and embrace.
That’s the way we would expect the story to go because that’s what David does in the first reading. (1 Samuel 26.2-23) He’s found his nemesis King Saul sleeping right in front of him. One thrust of the spear and it would be finished. But David relents. He cannot do himself what is for God to do.
That’s the way we would expect the story to go because we’ve just heard Jesus talk about loving enemies and offering the other cheek and forgiving. Giving more of our stuff to people who’ve already stolen from us. Extending mercy based on some bizarre assurance that we might be shown mercy. (Luke 6.27-38)
We would hope in light of the context in which we find ourselves that Max could have overcome the decades-old drive for revenge. But he doesn’t! He pursues a vicious plot of murderous revenge.
And as much as we might like for the story to have gone in a different, better direction, when we think about what Max saw that night, what has haunted him every moment of every day, those words of his grandfather as sharp now as sever – Nekama! – “take revenge!” – we have to acknowledge that in each of us there is probably a small, isolated place in our hearts that allows us to sympathize with Max, that allows us to think that, obviously, yes, revenge is reasonable, maybe even necessary.
There’s a small place in our hearts that thinks David was crazy not to take care of his rival right then and there when he had the chance.
There’s a small place in our hearts that thinks all this stuff Jesus says is a bunch of pious gobbledygook. Jesus saying things that are completely unreasonable, impossible, ridiculous. We know the world doesn’t work that way.
But, if we’re here, regardless of what might haunt a vast, dark corner of our hearts, we have to trust that what Jesus said wasn’t that unreasonable, not unrealistic. It’s unrealistic only in that we as his disciples haven’t done more to make it real. We haven’t attempted better to think as God thinks and not as human beings thing. We conclude that what Jesus says about doing unto others doesn’t work because we haven’t worked to make it work.
Alan Dershowitz’ novel is titled Just Revenge. It reminds me of a more recent book, a memoir by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer in the south who works to exonerate people wrongly accused and convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the South, many of them African-Americans. He is one of my living heroes. Bryan Stevenson’s book is titled Just Mercy.
What I’d suggest, what I hope we could conclude, based upon the stories we’ve heard today of Max and David and the lessons of Jesus is this: Revenge is never just. Mercy, on the other hand, is always just. TL