Sunday, February 20, 2011

Forbid the Vehicle to Drive in Wrong Direction
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Driving In Which Direction?
Picture: cc revolution cycle

Sisters and brothers, have you ever driven a strange car in a foreign country before? Those of us who have will know that it can take some getting used to. For one thing, the controls in the new vehicle will often not be where you expect them to be. You try to turn on the indicator lights, but the wipers may come on instead. And what about the traffic rules? It’s likely that these will be different too. For example, here in the States, when you stop at a traffic junction, the first one to get there has the right of way. But where I come from, it’s the vehicle on the right that should be allowed to go first. There’s also no right turn when the traffic lights are red. Get caught turning on red and you’ll be made to pay a fine. Different car, different controls. Different country, different rules.

Still, when driving in a foreign country, it's possible to get by even if you’re not that familiar with all the traffic rules. If you drive carefully, it’s possible to figure out the rules as you go along. All the rules, that is, except one. Before attempting to drive in a foreign country, it’s probably best that you first figure out on which side of the road you’re supposed to be driving. You see, where I come from, we drive on the other side – the left side – of the road. Can you imagine how dangerous it would be if I forgot that tiny little detail? I’d be driving against the flow of traffic! The moral of the story? Whatever you do, when driving in a new place, first be sure that you’re going in the right direction.

I bring this up because what Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount is not unlike what a good driving instructor might be expected to do when teaching a bunch of foreigners who are used to driving under different rules. Since her students are already drivers, the instructor doesn’t have to go over the basics. She focuses only on the differences in the rules. She may say something like: Back in your country, you’re used to doing such and such, but over here, this is how you should drive. In the gospel today, Jesus says something very similar. His message is that the kingdom of Heaven is at hand. And, in his preaching, he teaches the people how they are live in this new kingdom. You have heard that it was said.… But I say to you. Different country, different rules. 

Even so, as we all know, driving is a practical skill. You don’t really learn it just by listening to a lecture. To really get a feel for how all the rules work, you have to get behind the wheel and onto the road. Although a good sermon may be helpful, it can still leave many details unclear. Take for example the first rule that Jesus talks about in the gospel – the rule against retaliation. According to the old way of doing things, we can give as good as we get. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But things are different in the kingdom of God. Here, when someone attacks us, we are not to resist. Instead, we should turn the other cheek. If someone takes advantage of us, we are not to complain. Instead, we should give more than is requested of us. You want my tunic? Sure, here’s my cloak as well. Even if we may find this change in the rules surprising and difficult to follow, it does seem clear enough. Don’t resist evil. Just give in. But is that really all there is to it?

What at first sounds clear in theory, may turn out to be much more complicated in practice. For example, what does it mean for me to turn the other cheek, if I’m a woman married to a drunk, who beats me up everyday? Am I not allowed to stand up for myself, or to get help? Am I not allowed to leave my abusive husband? Or what if I’m someone who consistently gets picked up by the authorities for no reason other than the color of my skin? Should nothing be done about the injustice?

The rule that at first sounds unproblematic in the classroom, becomes much less clear when one gets onto the road of life. Already in our first reading, we find an indication that more can be done than simply giving in to evil and injustice. Here, in the book of Leviticus, God allows for the possibility that we may have to reprove our fellow citizen. What we should not do is to hate our brother or sister in our heart. Even Jesus himself seems to act differently from what he is telling us to do in today’s gospel. In John’s gospel, when one of the temple guards strikes him, rather than quietly turning the other cheek, Jesus responds by saying to the guard: If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me? (18:23).

But still, even if it’s not absolutely clear to us what it might mean to turn the other cheek, this lack of clarity in the rule doesn’t mean that we should stay off the roads. And, more importantly, neither does it mean that we can simply drive in whichever way we want. While figuring things out as we go along, there’s one crucially important detail that we need to keep in mind. When in a foreign country, we need to take extra care to drive on the same side of the road as everyone else. So too, in the kingdom of Heaven, we need be sure that we are moving in the same direction as God. Isn’t this what Jesus means when he tells us to be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. For he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and he causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust?

No matter what kind of people God encounters, no matter how heavy the traffic, no matter how terrible the conditions on the roads, God consistently moves in the same direction, the direction of love. As the psalmist says: Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.… As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us. And it’s not just from the psalmist that we know this. We ourselves experience it daily. Especially here, in the Eucharist, we experience first hand the depth of God’s love and compassion toward us in Christ.

Sisters and brothers, as together we continue learning to drive in the kingdom of God, it’s very likely that we will encounter situations in which we are unsure exactly what we should do, how we should react. In deciding one way or another, what’s most important for us is that we continue trying to move in the direction of love. To be holy as God is holy. But that’s not all. There’s something else that we can do. In the second reading, we also find St. Paul speaking to the Corinthians about being holy. But instead of telling them to become holy, quite incredibly, Paul says that they already are holy. The temple of God, which you are, says Paul, is holy. The Corinthians are already holy because they are God’s temple, and the Spirit of God dwells in them. And if what Paul says about the Corinthians is true also of us, then perhaps more than simply learning to drive more carefully, what we need to learn is to hand the steering wheel of our lives over to God. Perhaps what we need to do most of all is to let the Spirit direct us to where we need to go.

Sisters and brothers, on which side of the road, in which direction, are we driving today?


  1. There is only one direction worth taking: moving towards the light of God's deepest desire in each one of us.
    God bless for the journey ahead!

  2. Sometimes I wonder why I haven't changed much ever since my baptism over 10 years ago. Why do my predominant faults still remain?

    Have I been moving in the right direction? I believe I am. Then why? Is it because I hardly fast? Have I been too self-indulgent?