DEALING WITH POISON LETTERS
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [2Kgs 19:9-11, 14-21, 31-36; Ps 48:2-4,10-11; Mt 7:6.12-14]
What do we do when we receive poison letters, nasty emails, hate text messages, false accusations and slanders? They can be very unsettling, discouraging and hurting. They upset us and cause us to be angry and reactive. We feel unjustified, humiliated and wounded. Our immediate reaction is to defend ourselves, to protect our character and reputation, and hit back at our opponents. If these letters threaten our lives or we are faced with possible legal actions, we feel fearful, worried and anxious. We start worrying about our safety and security. Regardless, we start planning how to defend our interests and overcome our enemies’ threats.
This was the situation of Hezekiah, the King of Judah. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been conquered by Assyria. They were deported to Assyria. Judah was now at risk of being attacked by Assyria. In spite of the tribute given to the king of Assyria, Sennacherib was not satisfied unless they agreed to be deported as well. So the king sent a letter through his commander threatening King Hezekiah to surrender otherwise they would share the same fate as the rest of the nations conquered by Assyria.
We can imagine how much pressure King Hezekiah was under. He had to make a very difficult decision, either to bow to the demands of Sennacherib, which would mean the end of the kingdom, or to be faithful and trust God who was the King of Israel to protect them. Sennacherib wrote to Hezekiah, “Do not let your God on whom you are relying deceive you, when he says: Jerusalem shall not fall into the power of the king of Assyria. You have learnt by now what the kings of Assyria have done to every country, putting them all under the ban. Are you likely to be spared?” The wrong decision would cause not just himself, but his people to suffer as well. The question was: could the God of Israel be trusted to protect them from their enemies? Or was the King of Assyria more powerful than the God of Israel?
What did he do when he received such a threatening letter? He did not retaliate, as many of us would do. Our immediate response to someone who threatens us is to respond with similar threats. If our enemies say offensive things about us, we will respond with the same. We would use even more foul language to hurt them back. We just have to read all the nasty letters and respond in like manner. This is the way the world reacts as the Lord said earlier in the gospel. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” (Mt 5:38) Retaliating against our enemies is what unwise people would do. It will cause us more harm.
Although Hezekiah felt disturbed, unsettled and fearful, he did not react to the threat immediately. The first thing he did was to present the letter to the Lord. “Hezekiah took the letter from the hands of the messenger and read it; he then went up to the Temple of the Lord and spread it out before the Lord.” Indeed, before we take action or do anything silly or say anything, we must first bring our problems to the Lord. Instead of dwelling on our fears, nursing our anger and hatred, or conniving how to attack our enemies for what they have said or done to us, we must be calm before the Lord. Any form of rash reaction is not from the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, St Ignatius of Loyola advises us that in times of desolation, distress or sadness, we must make a proper discernment of the spirits, whether the desolation is coming from the evil spirit, the human spirit, or the Holy Spirit. Often, negativisms and anger come from the evil spirit and sometimes from the human spirit. So we need to be watchful where the emotions are coming from, and the kinds of emotions that are surfacing in us.
Self-awareness is the fundamental step in dealing with the challenges facing us. We must know who we are and where we stand in life. This was what Hezekiah did. In the presence of the Lord, he prayed a reflective and petitionary prayer. Although cognizant of the earthly military power of Assyria, Hezekiah who believed in the God of Israel as the God of all kingdoms of the earth asked that He save them from the hands of the Assyrians. More so, it was important that God proved Sennacherib wrong for insulting His name. Most of all, he said the reason why the Lord should save Israel was not only for Israel’s sake but so that all “kingdoms of the earth know that you alone are God, Lord.”
This is the same self-awareness that Jesus reminds us to have in dealing with those who are unkind to us. In the gospel, Jesus reminds us of the Golden Rule. “So always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets.” This principle can be understood both positively and negatively. It must be said that this Golden principle is not peculiar to Jesus. Confucius who lived 6 centuries before Christ also taught his disciples but he put it in a negative form, “Do not do unto others what you do not like others to do unto you.”
Regardless of whether it is phrased positively or negatively, this principle has long been taught before Christ and perhaps in most civilizations. This is because it is a principle founded on the human person, his dignity, feelings and needs. All of us who are human beings want to be treated with respect, fairness and kindness. So if we are conscious of what we want and how we want to be loved, treated and respected, we must render the same to others because we are all members of the human family. If we find ourselves treating others without respect, justice and compassion, it is because we lack self-awareness. If we are conscious of our feelings, then we will learn to empathize with others. Compassion means having a common passion. This is why those who lack compassion for others are often not in touch with their own feelings.
Consequently, extrapolating from our own needs and feelings, we will know what others need as well. Hence, the Lord tells us that we must treat others in the way we want to be treated ourselves. This way of treating people is the only way to win them over as our friends. We must lead by example, conducting ourselves in our relationship with others by according to everyone, regardless of their status in life, respect, dignity, justice, love and compassion. And the point of our Lord is that we will do it even if others do not treat us that way. Some might respond and some might not return kindness for kindness. But it does not matter because we are doing all these things in the sight of God. So long as God is pleased with us and we are pleased with ourselves for sharing in the life and love of God to love in that manner, we should rejoice. For this is the way God loves us in Jesus, always unconditional in His love, always doing good to us even when we are not good to Him.
However, the negative form of this formula must also be taken into consideration when we are taught not to harm others if we do not like others to harm us. Again, extrapolating from our experiences of injustices and lack of compassion from our brothers and sisters especially in times of need, weakness and helplessness, we too should not inflict the same treatment on others. We must put ourselves in their shoes, especially those who are less gifted, talented or blessed than us. We should not make them feel small or useless. We must accord them what is right and fair and even beyond what is our obligation.
What if our enemies continue to hurt us in spite of our seeking to be fair to them by responding to their evil with kindness, understanding and forgiveness? The truth is that there are some people who are just too hurt or wounded or too proud to admit they are wrong. Then the Lord says to us, “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls in front of pigs, or they may trample them and then turn on you and tear you to pieces.” Indeed, there are some people who are email warriors and they must have the last word. Then just let them be. Hold your peace!
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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