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Kindness and Mercy

“...But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well...” (Matthew 5:39)

Today’s Gospel reading reminds me of an observation made by Br. Peter Bray, the Vice-chancellor of Bethlehem University. When asked whether New Zealand had changed much since he left, he answered there was one facet of life that had changed, and it made him uncomfortable.  

He said that fifteen years ago, he left behind a New Zealand where people were genuinely and consistently nice to each other. That did not seem to be the case nowadays. He looked sad about it. It is a sad thought.  

I see what he means, I guess. I moved here just over 17 years ago and fell in love with a country full of kind and generous people. It was markedly different from where I had come from. Strangers talked to each other, retail workers were authentically pleasant and helpful, and generous hosts invited waifs and strays to BBQs at Christmas. People helped each other. 

However, that is still largely the case, isn’t it? Haven’t we seen as much during crises like the Christchurch quake and the recent terrible floods? 

I suspect Brother Peter’s attention had been caught in part by social media and television, where banter has replaced conversation and folk are too busy trying to score points, and gain likes and followers, to consider turning the other cheek. Reality TV from overseas is teaching us a way of reacting to each other which is all about drama rather than a sense of compassion. Combative is cool.  

Turn the other cheek? What does it mean, anyway? Is Jesus asking us to accept abuse, or be taken advantage of? And isn’t it too much to ask that we show the same sort of mercy as God? 

The readings from Leviticus and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians shed some light on the theme: 

“Didn’t you realise that you were God’s temple and that the spirit of God is living within you? If anybody should destroy the temple of God, God will destroy him, because the temple of God is sacred; and you are that temple.” (1Corinthians 3:16-17)  

The image of a temple helps. We can visualise ourselves made strong by God, with high straight walls, filled with the Holy Spirit. Take away the Spirit, and we are empty and weak. 

Once again, we see that it pays to be kind. We are strengthened by being compassionate to our fellows, just as we are weakened by being spiteful or vengeful. Jesus is telling us to mind our own behaviour no matter what we encounter in someone else. We do not have to react aggressively to aggression. In fact, the years have taught me that killing aggression with kindness is more effective than fighting back anyway. We have been gifted the Holy Spirit, and when we need to, we can call upon God’s help to behave in the right way.  

Yet sometimes it feels like the Spirit of God is not within us. It is not easy, but even when we feel disconnected from God’s spirit, it is possible to focus on the idea that God is present whether we are aware of Him or not. In the Gospel, Jesus repeats the phrase, but I say this to you. We are hearing God speaking directly to us, telling us that being kind and merciful is possible. Who can argue with that?  

Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18

Psalm 102

1 Corinthians 3:16-23

Matthew 5:38-48

Source: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time A1

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