by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“You have heard that it was said: ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…for if you love only those who love you, what recompense will you have?” Matthew 5: 38-48
Towards the end of his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul challenged the members of that community to do a self-evaluation of the quality of their faith: “Put yourselves to the test.” he wrote. “Examine yourselves to make sure you are in the faith. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is really in you? If not, you have failed the test.” (2 Corinthians 15: 5-6)
Today’s gospel-reading presents us with another call to measure the quality of our discipleship. It comes from Jesus himself to everyone who would be his disciple, and it is given as a simple, unambiguous directive: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s the standard against which to measure our discipleship.
We all know how tall an order that is. But, at the same time, we all pray the Lord’s Prayer daily, giving, at the very least, lip-service to the words: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There are probably times when we feel uncomfortable about asking God to forgive us in proportion to the genuineness of our forgiveness of those who have hurt us. That, of course, is due to the fact that, when we are insulted, abused, physically assaulted, or have our reputation sullied, we respond instinctively, wanting to avenge the harm done to us. Sometimes, we want to exact interest in our effort to settle the score.
Today’s gospel-reading effectively says to us: Put yourself to the test. Examine yourself to make sure that you really forgive those who harm you, who speak ill of you, who criticise and detest you.
We can look for wriggle room here and rationalise ourselves into thinking that the direction from Jesus to go the extra mile, to give beggars double what they ask for, and to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us is aspirational, something to aim for rather than an absolute requirement. But working to make God’s reign or kingdom real calls us to leave self-interest and half-hearted compliance behind. While the first reading from Leviticus prepares the way for the challenge Jesus puts to all who would be his disciples, it stops short and accommodates the position of the scribes and Pharisees who made the assumption that anyone who was not a Jew was, in fact an enemy. While Leviticus stated: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19: 18), Jesus went a big step further in calling for love of enemies and prayer for persecutors. It’s important to note, however, that the word Jesus used for love in Matthew’s Gospel is agape, a word devoid of emotional connection, and meaning good-will or tolerance towards one’s enemies.
The view espoused by the scribes and Pharisees that anyone who was not a Jew was categorised as an enemy permeated Jewish society in the time of Jesus and, indeed, well before his time. Samaritans were labelled as enemies and ostracised by Jews because their way of practising religion was different from the Jewish way. When Jesus and his disciples ventured into territory on the other side of Lake Galilee, they saw themselves as going into enemy territory because the people they would encounter did things differently, held different views, even ate food which Jews regarded as defiled or contaminated or forbidden by their law. Anyone who had a different point of view on one or many issues was considered by the Jewish people as an enemy. The call by Jesus to reach out in compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation to such people was revolutionary. But working to establish the kingdom of God was working to include everyone, for all have been loved into life by God and, therefore, worthy of respect and dignity and justice.
“Persecutors”, however, belonged to a different category. They were people intent on doing harm to others. They dealt in harassment, violence and causing trouble for anyone for whom they developed a dislike. What Jesus, then, was asking of all who would be his disciples was to reach out in love to all whose opinions differed on from theirs on issues those disciples regarded as important. In addition, he called his disciples to pray for all those people who were intent on bringing harm to them.
Effectively, Jesus was challenging his disciples to love their enemies (everyone who was not a law-abiding Jew) and pray for God’s abundant blessing on everyone who was out to do them harm.
That challenge is directed to every one of us who have dared to be baptised into Jesus Christ. Does it ever occur to us to actually reach out in acceptance and love to those with whom we have argued and fallen out? Can we bring ourselves to pray God’s abundant blessings on the Vladimir Putins, the Bolsonaros, the Myanmar Juntas, the Xi Jinpings and the Bashar al-Assads of our world? An abundance of God’s blessings might be needed to change their hearts. Moreover, there is little to be gained by responding to their violence with more of the same. Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian advocate for non-violence, echoed the call of Jesus when he warned that a world that insists on demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will end up blind and toothless. Does that describe the United Nations, governments that stockpile weapons of war and allow their citizens to arm themselves with lethal weapons for self-defence and cultures in which domestic violence is rife?
Jesus, we know, practiced what he preached. He intervened at the time of his arrest when an over-vigorous disciple drew his sword and severed an ear of the high priest’s servant. He cured the servant on the spot and reprimanded the aggressor. He silenced his disciples when they suggested that fire be called down from heaven as punishment for a group of Samaritans. He absorbed the cruelty of the Roman soldiers without even uttering insults or threats of retaliation. He prayed to God from the Cross for forgiveness for those who had crucified him.
He reinforced his challenge to all would-be disciples by urging them to imitate the benevolence of God who did not play favourites, allowing sun to shine on and rain to refresh good and bad alike. He proceeded to add that munificence towards everyone calls for the kind of generosity that God displays: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That surely was not a call for disciples to be flawless, to be more than human. It was a plea to reach into our depths to let loose a love for others similar to God’s love which knows no bounds. That’s the dream of Jesus for all of us.