A number of years ago I was speaking with a man who was preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. He was telling me the story of his journey to faith. In the conversation, he mentioned the Gospel passage for today’s liturgy where Jesus tells us: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The man was Jewish and his family had experienced hatred in many forms. He mentioned that he had always been attracted to Jesus, a fellow Jew, but when it came to this particular teaching, he found it a stumbling block. He could understand the call to mercy, but to love?
As he continued to encounter Jesus and the church, he began to wrestle with this teaching more and more. For him, it was the death and resurrection of the Lord which brought everything together. He said that once he started to realize the magnitude of God’s love, he would need to purge anything that would hinder that love from being experienced. He likened it to a death experience. His hatred or indifference needed to die so that love would could rise. He later recalled that prior to this awareness and experience he had always had an anxiousness about him, something unsettled; after this he found peace.
Jesus’s teaching comes from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel According to St. Matthew. We’ve been hearing from this section of the Gospel for a few weeks now. In this particular section of the Sermon, Jesus invites us to go deeper into the mystery of the covenant reflected by the law. You may recall last Sunday’s Gospel passage when Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
The covenant is between God and his people, built on the relationship with God and with each other. Jesus’ teaching encourages us to internalize this relationship, which draws us deeper into the mystery of divine life of love.
In the first reading from the Book of Leviticus, the Lord says to Moses: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” The holiness of which the Lord speaks calls to mind a certain “otherness” or the greatness of God. He is Lord. He is God. Yet, God who is so much greater than his creation calls his people to the same greatness when he says: “Be holy.”
The holiness that he calls us to takes shape in the interactions we have with each other. An important indicator of how extensive this “otherness” needs to be is when the Lord says: “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.” This means that not only our actions but also our intentions and desires for the other must be free from hatred. The Lord tells us that holding a grudge or seeking revenge must be replaced with love. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon builds upon this instruction. He begins with one common notion of justice that with both within the Israelite experience but also with the Gentile communities of that day — “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
The basic notion of this principle is that of fairness. Most can readily see how this would work in a lesser situation. For example, if someone steals another person’s cow; they should repay with the cow or its equivalent.
Jesus, however, moves the discussion to a different level. He presents the opportunity to look beyond fairness or justice to mercy and love. “Turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile” are the expressions that we frequently use to remember the teaching.
The next part of the instruction has Jesus elaborate on our relationship with our “enemies.” In this teaching, he invites us to go further in our relationships than this world would either expect or desire. Love is the basis because it is of God. Seen in the context of Jesus’ mission to bring us to union with the Father, we recognize that love moves us in this direction; anything outside of love either stagnates the movement or moves one in another direction. So Jesus says: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” or in the broadest sense: “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus invites us to see the world and the relationships we have in this world as an opportunity to encounter God. Even in the relationships that are most troubled and perhaps unfair the opportunity exists. Jesus invites us to find the Lord even in these situations, for as the psalmist says: “Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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