Homily for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time February 27, 2022

     Haunted by Jesus’ words

During this past week there have been quite a few ads for President’s Day sales, which reminded me about one of the most uplifting actions by any American President. The story goes like this…


Abraham Lincoln tried to love, and he left for all history a magnificent drama of reconciliation. When he was campaigning for the presidency, one of his arch-enemies was a man named Edwin McMasters Stanton. For some reason Stanton hated Lincoln. He used every ounce of his energy to degrade Lincoln in the eyes of the public. So deep-rooted was Stanton’s hate for Lincoln that he uttered unkind words about his physical appearance, and sought to embarrass him at every point with the bitterest diatribes. But in spite of this, Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States.


Then came the period when Lincolnton had to select his cabinet, which would consist of the persons who would be his most intimate associates in implementing his programs. He started to choose men here and there for the various positions.


The day finally came when Lincoln had to select the all-important position of Secretary of War. Can you imagine whom Lincoln chose? None other than the man named Stanton. The president’s inner circle thought immediately that Lincoln was making a horrendous mistake, and they tried to talk him out of it.


Lincoln’s answer was brief and to the point: “Yes, I know Mr. Stanton. I am aware of all the terrible things he has said about me. But after looking over the nation, I find that he is the best man for the job.” And so Lincoln’s secretary of war rendered extremely valuable service to the president and the country.


Not many years later, of course, Lincoln was assassinated. Many laudable things were said about him. But of all the great statements made, the words of Stanton remain among the greatest. Standing near the dead body of the one he once hated, Stanton referred to him as one of the greatest men who ever lived and said, “He now belongs to the ages.”


In the gospels perhaps one of the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings is his statement that we are to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. When we are being assaulted and lies are being spread about us, that’s hard to do. Nonetheless, Lincoln showed in a very dramatic way that Jesus’ teaching could be put into practice.


I am not sure how you love your enemies on a large scale. For example, what do we do about the actions of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine? Certainly, evil needs to be resisted, but how do you love a man like Putin?


I’ve been reading a biography of Maria Theresa, who was the Empress of Austria in the 1700’s. She was the mother of sixteen children, including Marie Antoinette of France. Her reign was filled with almost constant battles, with the stronger nations taking over the weak, with alliances being entered into and then almost immediately broken. It reminded me that much of the history of Europe is actually the history of war. Putin’s strong-man tactics fit right into that long-standing notion that might makes right, and the little people you hurt along the way doesn’t matter.


That long history, stretching across the centuries down to our present day, gives a vivid picture of what life is like when the teaching of Jesus is practically ignored. Certainly, the better part of human nature is to help those who are weak, not to march over them; to feed the hungry, not to starve them to death; to create alliances of peace rather than starting wars; to love those who are different rather than taking advantage of the weak.


Many religious authorities have invited us to fast and pray about this situation, which is totally unjust, and to lift up the people of Ukraine and the other countries that surround Russia in our daily prayers. Certainly, this would be an appropriate way to enter into the season of Lent.


But now I want to focus our attention on something closer to home. While we may have little control or input into what happens internationally, we do bear responsibility for the way we act in our everyday world. If there are people we can’t stand, much as Stanton hated Lincoln, if there are those that seem to get under our skin and make us lose patience and become angry, if in fact we have people we won’t talk to because they have hurt us in some way, if we really listen to Jesus’ words, I think they should haunt us. How can we hope for a peaceful world, over which we have little control, when our minds and hearts are not at peace? How can we condemn our neighbor while ignoring our own sinfulness? How can we remove the splinter from our neighbor’s eye, when we refuse to remove the wooden beam from our own—as Jesus puts it in today’s gospel? Can we be content to say, “Well, that’s just the way it is; that’s how the world works, it’s gone on too long to do anything about it anyway?” Or do we really listen anew to Jesus’ teaching, which seems to be so very clear?


One final point. I know how hard this is to do. When it comes to nursing hurt feelings, I have done that many times when people have said or done hateful things. One time, I even prayed for a business to go out of business because I felt they did not honor their contract. But I continue to work at it because Jesus’ words, which are supposed to be the guide for my life, still haunt me. Perhaps this is a good place to start our Lenten journey, allowing Jesus teaching to penetrate our hearts and haunt us.