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Cardinal Vincent Nichols & his remarks about the benefits system

March 1, 2014

Matthew 5: 38-48 Sunday of Week 7 23 February 2014

“An eye for an eye,” is often a favourite bible quotation for people seeking revenge. Unfortunately for them, their interpretation is completely wrong, the opposite of the true message. The idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ is that when someone is brought to justice, the punishment must fit the crime. If someone is blinded, the person who did it should not be over-punished – they should have the equivalent of losing an eye themselves, not losing their life.

The message of the first reading (Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18) is that we must not bear grudges, but sadly this goes against much of the modern thinking in this country. Our society always seems to be looking to blame people and punish them when things go wrong. People get stereotyped, and that can lead to injustice as people get judged and blamed for things that are really nothing to do with them. For example, the attitudes towards the unemployed in this country can be shocking. Cardinal Vincent Nichols spoke out last week about the growing numbers of people who face destitution with welfare reforms. He said, “The safety net to guarantee people would not be left in hunger or destitution has been torn apart. And the administration of social assistance has become more punitive. If applicants don’t get it right they have to wait for two weeks with nothing. For a country of affluence that, quite frankly, is a disgrace.” One of comments made on the internet about this said,

“Archbishop Nichols hits the nail right on the head. Anyone who has had the misfortune of going to a Job Centre recently will know exactly what he means about a “punitive” system:

Don’t have a computer? Tough.

Can’t fill in a form? Tough.

Disabled? Tough. Ill? Tough.

Two minutes late for your appointment? Tough.

Ten unemployed people for every job vacancy? Tough.

You will be insulted, talked down to, and generally treated like a piece of dirt on the floor by sneering, snarling staff who all too often enjoy what they are doing. The whole system is now punitive, vindictive, uncaring.”

So on what basis does the Archbishop speak out? He is following the line given in the reading from Leviticus today: “You must openly tell your neighbour of his offence”. Unfortunately, our society considers it unwise to criticize others. How did ‘the world’ react to the Cardinal’s remarks? They didn’t like it. They quoted statistics, they argued reform was necessary, they said he was wrong, wrong,  wrong.No surprises there then……

Listen again to what St Paul had to say in the second reading today (1 Corinthians 3: 16-23):

“If you consider yourself wise, in the ordinary sense of the word, then you must learn to be a fool before being really wise. The world will treat you as a fool.”

We have to learn to accept being labelled as fools if we are to do what God wants us to do.

In the gospel today (Matthew 5: 38-48) our Lord gives us some examples of how to put the teaching we have heard from Leviticus and from St Paul into our everyday lives. And the examples he gives do sound to us like they are foolish: Love your enemies.

Now, don’t forget who the enemies of the Jews were at the time of Jesus: the brutal Roman Empire. Jesus is telling people not to resist the awful brutality. He tells us there is a different way. To love our enemies. He uses as a practical example the rule the Romans had which said that a soldier could order someone to help them carry their baggage for one mile. One mile was a thousand paces. Jesus says, if you’re ordered to do this, go two miles. It’ll confuse the enemy. It will leave the soldier bemused, maybe faintly embarrassed. Maybe he’ll wonder why he got such a strange response. Maybe he would talk as he walked along.

In our own lives we will all be able to remember experiences that we found painful; we may even find ourselves in very difficult, unpleasant situations now. What can we do about it? People who have been horrible to us; circumstances have offended us. Stupid rules enforced by ‘jobsworths’. How should we respond? Turning the other cheek means we should avoid trying to get revenge. A slap in the cheek with the back of the hand was an insult in Jesus’ time. Jesus is saying, “don’t seek revenge”. The key to being able to turn the other cheek, to become able to forgive, is that we must teach ourselves to love our neighbour as ourselves. I say ‘teach ourselves’ because it is a process that needs to be repeated until we do it without thinking. So the first thing to think about is, ‘Do you love yourself’? Well, if that means you’re in love with yourself, there’s something badly wrong. No, what I mean is, if you behave badly or make a mistake, do you forgive yourself, or do you seek revenge? If you lose your temper, do you forgive yourself, and then convince yourself that the blame lies 100% with the person who made you angry?

Here’s what a good Christian must learn to do: try and see things from the other person’s point of view. Make excuses for them! Look at yourself and see if you’re being unreasonable. Then make up for it. Grovelling apologies may not go down too well, but taking a later opportunity to do a small act of kindness, without comment, for the other person, is good. They may even be unaware that you’re doing something kind for them. But it will set the path for a change of attitude in you towards that person. And they will pick up the change of vibes. And you may be surprised by their reaction.

So if, during the coming week, you come across someone who has treated you unfairly or offended you, don’t bear a grudge. Turn the other cheek. Go out of your way to treat them as you would someone you loved. A small consideration, an act of kindness, perhaps a good word about them instead of finding fault in them.

And how do you get the energy, the impetus, the motivation to overcome your natural instincts? That’s why we’re here. To call upon God for help. To ask God to be with us through the difficult times. By turning to Jesus Christ, to offer up our hurts and grudges and to be inspired by the Holy Spirit to do things a better way, that’s why we’re here in church now. We should leave this place strengthened by the Sacraments to go out into the world as worthy living Temples of the Lord. Saint Paul says that the temple of God is sacred. And what would make us especially suitable, as a sacred place for God to reside? It’s our holiness. And holiness is what we strive to achieve in our ordinary Christian lives because it is the way of achieving eternal communion with God. And, to quote our Lord, that means ‘being perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect’.

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