Epiphany VII (A)
February 20, 2011
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Let us pray. Lord, open to us the sea of your mercy and water us with full streams from the riches of your grace and the springs of your kindness. Make us children of quietness and heirs of peace; kindle in us the fire of your power as we become close to you and each other. Amen.
In his book The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner says that “The love for equals is a human thing – of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles.
That excerpt from The Magnificent Defeat may seem like a strange way for me to start my homily this morning and move into the subject of bullfighting, but stick with me; I think (and pray!) that I can make the connection…
And not a connection to regular bullfights, but the much more humane sport of bloodless bullfights. In bloodless bullfights, the bulls aren’t weakened by the bloody stabbings that are part of traditional fights. The result is that they can use their considerable strength to hook their horns around a matador’s legs and toss him skyward. I stumbled onto a report of a recent bullfight, at which the matador crashed to the ground, climbed to his feet in obvious agony and lurched back toward the bull for another go, intent on achieving a purely symbolic kill. Said one spectator to the reporter for Hemispheres magazine (February 2010): “That dude’s insane.”
You all know the drill: If you flee, you look for an escape route and run faster than you ever dreamed was possible. But if you fight, you look for one thing and one thing only:
And that is blood. You know deep down inside that there will be blood…either literally or metaphorically.
You want to draw first blood and put down the evildoer. The goal is to save yourself, save your spouse, save your children, save your friends. If the danger is more emotional than physical, the response is still the same: You want the offender to bleed. The love that broke your heart. The boss who fired you. The lover who betrayed you.
Pow…right in the kisser! First blood. And down they go.
This adrenaline-juiced dance with danger has been going on for centuries in the Latin world’s bullrings. Bullfighting is a spectacle in which a picador on a horse begins the fight by spearing the bull’s neck. Then bandilleros place three pairs of darts in the bull’s back. Finally the matador enters the ring and uses his cape to dance with the bull before he kills it with a sword.
It really isn’t a sport. It’s a blood-soaked spectacle.
Fans say that “bullfighting is an intricate brush with death for both the bull and the bullfighter,” writes Edward Lewine in Hemispheres magazine (February 2010). It’s a crucible that reveals the fearlessness of an animal and the bravery of a man.
Whether the bull gores the matador or the matador stabs the bull, one thing is certain in a traditional bullfight: There will be blood. Unless, of course, the event is a bloodless bullfight.
In a hotel and casino off the Las Vegas Strip, a new attraction has emerged in which men face bulls without the spears, darts and swords of traditional bullfighting. The natural fight-or-flight reaction is still present, as is the very real danger of a pair of horns on a 1,000-pound bull. But there’s no “death in the afternoon,” as Ernest Hemingway described it. In place of stabbing the bull with a sword, the matador “kills” the bull symbolically, by hitting Velcro patches glued to the bull’s back. Call it a kinder, gentler brush with death.
It is hard to tell whether or not bloodless bullfighting has a future, but everyone sees it as a radical departure from the gory spectacle of the past. In much the same way, Jesus reinvented the blood sports of his day when he looked at the tradition of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and issued a new set of guidelines: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matthew 5:38-41).
In a world that is accustomed to an eye for an eye, particularly in this country’s judicial system, this is a whole new way of responding to attack. To the natural reactions of fight and flight, Jesus adds a third response: Love. There will be love. And let’s be honest…there’s a little place inside of all of us that just hates it when he does that!
However, this reaction can be every bit as effective as a flight to safety or a fight that draws blood, and it requires real bravery and commitment. And I am not talking about some sort of mushy love that is full of warm and fuzzy feelings; this love is grounded in a deep determination to respond to danger by acting in a Christ-like way. We are challenged to be as courageous as matadors, standing without spear or sword in front of a snorting bull.
We are completely unarmed, except for the Word of God – which, fortunately, Paul says in the letter to the Hebrews, is “sharper than any two edged-sword” (Hebrews 4:12).
So what exactly does Jesus say about responding to danger with love? He begins by insisting that love does not retaliate. According to New Testament scholar Eugene Boring, Jesus calls “for his disciples to reject absolutely the principle of retaliatory violence.” There is to be no pow...down they go!
This response makes no sense unless you see it in the context of the kingdom of God. In this heavenly realm, enemies are embraced and turned into friends, not rejected and put to death. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” says Jesus – demonstrate that you are a follower of the Prince of Peace (v. 39). “[I]f anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” – show the world that you find your security in God, not in material possessions (v. 40). “[I]f anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” – reveal your generosity by offering them more than they are demanding of you (v. 41). “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” – make a point of helping others as the Lord has helped you (v. 42).
Love doesn’t retaliate; instead, it seeks the welfare of the other person, even if that person is an evildoer. By responding with nonviolence, generosity and helpfulness, we stand a chance of leading someone closer to God’s kingdom.
Of course, such a Christ-like response is difficult. It takes courage and deep determination. For example, in Uganda, Angelina Atyam’s daughter was abducted in 1996. According to Divinity magazine (Winter 2010), rebel troops took her and 29 other girls from a Catholic boarding school. Angelina met weekly with the parents of the other girls to pray for their daughters’ release.
“I was confused, bitter and very deep in my heart I was thinking, ‘How do I avenge this?’” says Angelina. “Yet we continued to pray and call upon the [rebels] to release our children, protect them, bring them home and make peace again.”
One day, a priest was leading the group of parents in the Lord’s Prayer. When they got to the words “Forgive us our sins,” the parents suddenly stopped. They could no longer say “…as we forgive those who sin against us.” Realizing they were asking for the forgiveness of their sins yet were unable to forgive the rebels for stealing their children, the parents filed silently out of the church. It was simply too difficult. They just could not bring themselves to be Christ-like enough to forgive the rebels’ sins.
The parents went home and began to examine themselves. And something amazing happened: By the next meeting, they started to pray to forgive the rebels. They also began sharing their story of forgiveness with others and became leaders in a national movement to secure the release of abducted children. After seven years of captivity, Angelina and her daughter were reunited.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” says Jesus. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (vv. 43-45). Once again, Jesus gives us a response to adversity that is connected closely to the kingdom of God. He is challenging us to love our enemies not because they are wonderful people who deserve to be loved but because they are children of God – we are to love them because God loves them. After all, says Jesus, God “makes [the] sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (v. 45).
Then Jesus raises the stakes a little higher, like the promoter of a bloodless bullfight releasing an even bigger beast into the ring. “[I]f you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” That’s an easy kind of love; even dishonest tax collectors do the same. “[I]f you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” Even unclean Gentiles greet their brothers and sisters. You can do better than that! (vv. 46-47).
Love your enemies, insists Jesus. Pray for those who persecute you. Stand up to the danger of an angry, snorting bull with no weapon but the Word of God. “Be perfect,” says Jesus, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48). This means to be complete in your love, not reserving it for neighbors, friends and family. It means to serve God wholeheartedly, focusing on the standards of God’s kingdom. Just like we see in the life of Clara Hale who we remember today.
This challenge is enormous because the fight-or-flight reaction is strong. We naturally want to run away or draw blood. But Jesus says no – try love. Try courageous, determined, committed love.
The Jerusalem spectacle wasn’t a bloodless bullfight but, in fact, a gory mess. Not aspiring to be a victorious matador, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). He took our sins upon himself and died so we might experience forgiveness and life in God’s kingdom.
But that, of course, isn’t the end of the bloody bullfight. God raised Jesus from the dead, “highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that…every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vv. 9-11).
When faced with danger, we are called to try to imitate the behavior of our crucified and risen Lord. When tempted to retaliate, we need to remember that Jesus refused to retaliate. When filled with hatred for our enemies, we should recall that Jesus loved his enemies, all the way to the cross.
In the bullfights of our lives, we have three choices: We can flee…we can fight…or we can or love. Amen.
Boring, M. Eugene. “The Gospel of Matthew.” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, 193-96.
Lewine, Edward. “There won’t be blood.” Hemispheres, February 2010, 65-67.
Williamson, Sherry. “As we forgive …” Divinity, Winter 2010.