Ars Praedicandi: 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

I am consistently astounded
not just at what scientists discover, but also how
they sometimes accidentally stumble onto truths big and small.

One of the most famous chance finds
was Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin:
halfway through an experiment with bacteria
he left his lab and went on vacation for two weeks.

Alternately described as messy, unfastidious, or just a slob
he left a stack of dirty dishes smeared with bacteria.
When he returned he found that bacteria had grown all over
except where a certain mold had formed.
According to one wag, that episode led to two things:
first, the discovery of the wonder drug penicillin,
and second, his wife hiring a maid.

While the discovery of penicillin
doesn’t have much to do with today’s readings,
another somewhat obscure archeological discovery might.

It is a well-established fact
that about 90% of the world’s population is right-handed.
Some scientists tried to figure out why that was so
and how long the trait has existed in our species.

One of the ways they did this
was by looking at teeth.
Sounds odd or maybe simply smart!

Over 100,000 years ago, maybe earlier
our ancestors started processing animal skins.
Not surprisingly, this seemed to coincide
with the beginning of the last ice-age.
Those of us who live through Chicago winters
understand the need for a warm coat.

And what does this have to do with teeth?
Well, if you didn’t have a hide stretcher,
and our ancient ancestors didn’t,
the easiest way for an individual to process a hide
was to hold it in your teeth,
stretch it out with one hand,
while the other handheld a stone tool for scraping.

Clever archaeologists have found consistent evidence
of dental scratches where the owner
accidentally scrapped their teeth with these stone tools.

The marks predominantly went from
the upper left to the lower right side
demonstrating that most early humans
were also right-handed.

Now I know this must be absolutely fascinating for you
but there is a theological point to be made
and – with apologies to all dentists and hygienists –
it’s not about dental hygiene.

Walter Wink (d. 2012) was a celebrated Methodist biblical scholar.
In his book My Struggle to Be Human,
this of nonviolent resistance has a chapter subtitled:
turning the right cheek. [1]

In it, he recalls a class discussion on today’s gospel passage
inviting students to role-play the text: two volunteered.
They faced off, deciding who would be the hitter
and who would be the hittee.
Then Wink asked the hitter,
“How will you strike your opponent?”
The student, part of the 90% right-handers club,
made a fist with his right hand and faked a blow.

Students objected, saying that the text doesn’t say
right fist but right cheek.
To strike someone on the right cheek would require
a left-handed fist.
The only way that a right-handed person
could strike the right cheek
was with the back of the right hand.

Wink then deduces that what Jesus is describing
is not a fistfight, but an insult
intended not to injure but to humiliate.
A backhanded slap was the normal way
of admonishing inferiors not injuring one’s equal.

Wink further surmised that Jesus’ audience was not composed
of hitters but hittees – an audience of victims.
These are the ones who suffered dehumanizing treatment
because of their status or gender, age, or race.

But if that is so, why does Jesus counsel the already humiliated
to turn the other cheek?
Wink concludes: because it is an act of defiance!
that robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate.

If you turn the other cheek you can’t get backhanded again:
your nose is in the way.

If the oppressor hits you with his fist
he makes you his equal
implicitly acknowledging that
he now stands toe to toe with a peer.

Wink concludes, turning the other cheek
was not an act of cowardice or passivity
but an act of defiance.

This past week, millions of USonians celebrated Valentine’s Day.
Expenditures on the flowers, candy, dinners, and gifts
totaled an estimated $26 billion:
one wonders what that amount would do
to the recovery efforts in Turkey and Syria these days.

Besides resistance to the opulence sometimes on display
in Valentine’s gifting like
the $363,000 Chopard de Rigo sunglasses,
the $640,000 Montblanc pen,
or the 2.1-million-dollar Chopard watch.

There is a growing resistance by some
to the very concept of Valentine’s
with its emphasis on amorous affection for significant others.

So a few years back, there emerged Galentine’s Day
invented by a character on the sitcom Parks & Recreation
celebrating the friendship between women on February 13th.

Soon to follow was the more inclusive Palentine’s Day
not limited to women but a celebration of any friendship
also occurring on the 13th of February.

Words like Palentine and Galentine are what linguists call:
portMANteaus – a new word invented by combining two others like
brunch = breakfast and lunch
motel = motor and hotel
Brexit = Britain and exit.

One wonders whether in today’s readings
we are invited to live into some new portmanteau reality
like being frenemies to each other
(as in friendly enemies)
or authentic brangers to each other
(as in brothers to strangers)
or even follaborators, that is
(foes who collaborate).

Of course, this is not just about linguistic niceties,
but about learning to encounter each other,
even to differ with each other,
without the metaphorical backhand and insult.

Our public and private discourse these days
easily degenerates into belittlement,
disparagement and ridicule
from heckling leaders
in the hallowed halls of government
to the racial or sexist or agist slurs
too easily welling up in our hearts
then spilling out on our tongues
planting fresh seeds of prejudice in the young and innocent.

It is admittedly difficult, but the gospels these weeks
challenge us to acquire an embodied vocabulary
for disagreement without diminishment,
for opposition without oppression,
even for rivalry without vilification.

While my very private father never spoke of this event
almost 30 years ago I learned something about
follaborators, brangers and frenemies through his eyes.

The celebration of my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary
included a 10-day trip for the three of us to Hawaii.
On the last day of that trip we visited pearl harbor.

On the launch out to the Arizona memorial
Dad, who had served in the Navy during World War II,
grew more and more agitated.
When I inquired what was bothering him
he could only say, “Why are all of them here.”
The “them” were the throngs of Japanese tourists,
many my father’s age, some of whom I imagined
he had fought against in the Pacific.

There’s not much to the Arizona memorial:
a small platform perched on the roof of a tomb,
a few places to peer through the water,
to the turrets of the ship below,
and a surprisingly small inner sanctum,
where the names of those who rest in the waters below
are inscribed upon the wall.

Separating that wall from a row of benches
were a few waist-high crowd control poles
linked to each other by red velvet ropes.

As my parents and I sat in the front row
staring at the wall of names through a steady drizzle
an unexpected ritual unfolded
as one elderly Japanese woman stepped forward
took the flowered lei from around her neck
and placed it over one of the poles;
another woman followed, then another, and another.

Within minutes the poles and connected ropes
were weighed down in an explosion of orchids.
Dad was crying, then whispered something to my mother
who removed the lei she was wearing.
He then stood up and stepped into the flow of Asian women
whom he towered over as he moved forward
placing the delicate flowers on this makeshift shrine.

As he returned to his seat, head bowed,
I was aware that these Japanese women, this ancient enemy,
had entered into his holy of holies and taught him reverence,
offering glimpses of reconciliation in their symbolic dance.

But the teaching was not quite over.
For in a final ritual inversion
when the flower procession had apparently come to an end,
one elderly Japanese man stood
and walked deliberately toward the same post Dad had approached.
He removed the ring of orchids from around his neck
and placed them carefully on top of those my mother had worn.
He then turned, facing my father seated before him,
and quietly bowed to the honored gentleman who gave me life
before returning to his seat.

The rabbi was once asked by his students
why is it that in ages past
God appeared to so many women and men
but in this age, God seems to appear to no one.

The rabbi’s reply: because in this age
no one seems capable of bowing low enough.

Bowing low is difficult, so often implying humiliation.
But Jesus reminds us that such can actually be
an act of defiance in the face of a boastful world
One which St. Paul takes on today, admonishing
that we do not boast about,
what superior party, class, or race we imagine belonging to
because we first belong to each other
whether frenemies, brangers, or follaborators.
And, in turn, we all belong to Christ.

We pray that in our speaking and acting
we might be willing to humble ourselves as Jesus did
so that we might put an end
to all literal and metaphorical backhanding
and the dignity of every child of God
might thus be enhanced
through Christ our Lord.

[1] Walter Wink, My Struggle to become Human (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1017), pp. 65ff.

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