by Br Julian McDonald
“You have heard how it was said ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I’m challenging that: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” Matthew 5, 38-48
Today’s gospel reading leaves us in no doubt about Jesus’ option for non-violence and his attitude to the way in which our world tries to urge us to resort to violence whenever we are the target of injustice, persecution or emotional and physical abuse. A quick tour around our world reveals the extent to which violence is regarded as number one priority for addressing conflict and disagreement whenever they arise. Real or perceived injustice is being addressed almost as a reflex-action by disaffected groups in places like Hong Kong, Nigeria, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And the list goes on. Then there are those who decide that work-place disagreements or upsets in the school or university classroom are best addressed by gunning down as many fellow workers or students as possible. Add to that list the national leaders who advocate providing teachers with firearms to protect their students, and “Christian” politicians who maintain that the death penalty is an effective deterrent for crime. The philosophy of “an eye for an eye” is well and truly in vogue. Moreover, the movies we watch and the cultures that shape us teach us not to let ourselves be trampled on by anyone. We are encouraged not to be doormats, to resist being used, to fight fire with fire. And there is a blossoming industry in karate, kung fu and other self-defence skills that counter “turning the other cheek” and reaching out in forgiveness to those who would harm us. Loving one’s enemies is for the birds!
Of course, it’s not only the modern era that is addicted to violence. It was prevalent in the time of Jesus and in the centuries before him, and has been practiced endlessly down through the ages. Moreover, it has pervaded the Church and infected it like some incurable disease. We cannot pretend that the Crusades, the Inquisition and the burning of witches were just temporary. They were all carried out with a charade of righteousness, were more than temporary aberrations. They were excursions into violence in the name of orthodoxy, and have left an indelible scar.
In last week’s gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pointed to the importance of getting beyond the letter of the Mosaic Law dealing with murder and adultery, and spoke of the importance of growing beyond the impulses of anger and lust, feelings and urges that often lead to murder and adultery. Today’s reading urges us to grow beyond the law of retaliation. The urge to retaliate or get even when we are injured, insulted or hurt is something we all experience. After all, modern insurance and libel laws are essentially getting even when loss of physical health or wilful damage to property or reputation can be attributed to somebody else. For the people of Jesus’ time, and those of the centuries before him, the law of retaliation was a significant advance because it limited retaliation to one for one rather than the former practice of five for one. But Jesus went well beyond that when he urged his hearers to set aside legitimate retaliation and a thirst for strict justice and instead to offer no resistance to the wicked, to love their enemies and to pray for anyone who persecuted them, summing it all up with an exhortation to be like their heavenly Father, to reflect something of God’s inexhaustible love.
We are all used to scratching our heads over the translation: “You must be perfect – just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” These days, Scripture scholars suggest that a more accurate translation is: “You must be perfected rather than you must be perfect.” After all, perfection is something we are growing towards. To expect anyone to be perfect is expecting the impossible. The way of discipleship of Jesus is a process, an undertaking, a worthwhile adventure in which to invest a life-time. It is an invitation to us all to be single-minded in placing God and the ways of God at the centre of our lives.
It probably takes many of us a life-time to come to a lived realisation that God makes the sun shine on good and bad people alike, and gives refreshing rain to those who do evil as well as to those who do good. But eventually, we learn compassion. We stop asking why crooks and gangsters prosper (See Psalm 73, verses 2-3 and the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who asked:
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? And why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
(Sonnet: Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend).
Eventually, our own failure and fragility teach us to stop labelling others as good or bad, worthy or unworthy, honest or dishonest. Our life-experiences teach us a wider compassion that finds expression in tolerance and gentleness rather than in judgmentalism and cynicism. We even get to the point where we would not even want to withhold God’s sun and rain from anybody.
All this, of course, challenges us to reflect on how we pray the prayer that crosses our lips every day: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The life God has given us is too short and too precious to waste on anything less than love and forgiveness. True, there will always be in our lives people who have little appeal to us, people we can’t stand, those we would rather ignore. But to convince ourselves that we can do nothing to bridge the gap between us just won’t wash as far as Jesus is concerned. And there are better things to do than to waste time and energy on hating.
And why pray for those we can’t stand, those who have hurt us? For no other reason than that’s how God treats us, weak and sinful that we are. And remember, we pray every day that God will treat us as we treat others.