Readings: Lev 19:1-2.17-18; Ps 103:1-188.8.131.52-13; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Matt 5:38-48
Let’s not beat around the bush. The message of our readings this Sunday is clear and unambiguous. If we would be Christians, we must love our enemies. Let’s be frank. It is difficult to imagine a more demanding commandment. Because it is difficult, we are sorely tempted to water this commandment down, to impose our own, human, limits upon it, bounding what is unbounded, which is what “infinite” means. Dear friends, following Jesus doesn’t merely cost you something. Following Jesus costs you everything, which is why He defines discipleship as taking up your cross, living the paradox that the only way to save your life is to lose it for His sake and the sake of God’s kingdom.
In his book Unconditional?
, Brian Zahnd asks the straightforward question, "What does it mean to be a disciple?” If someone were a disciple of the great cellist Yo Yo Ma, you’d assume s/he would endeavor to play the cello with great skill. If someone were the disciple of a martial arts master, you’d assume that his/her efforts would be aimed at mastering that particular martial art. We call ourselves disciples of Jesus, but if I were to ask you, “What is Jesus the master of that you are trying to learn?” What would you say? The answer, of course, is that Jesus is the master of life, which means He is the master of happiness. After all, isn’t it the desire of everyone to be happy, that is, truly, genuinely, lastingly happy? You don’t need to be a Christian to want to be happy. You only need to be human. Being a disciple of Jesus is to recognize that He alone is “the master of living a human life as God intended” and that “at the center of Jesus’s teaching on how we should live is the recurring theme of love and forgiveness” (Zahnd 15).
You see, sisters and brothers, in a fallen world populated by sinners, like you and me, there can be no love without forgiveness. The greatest and first act of love we extend to an enemy is forgiveness. This prompts two questions. The first question, in light of today’s Gospel, it seems to me, is “What is an enemy?" "What is Jesus talking about?" The second question is, “What does it mean to forgive?”
The Greek word for enemy that is placed on the lips of Jesus in our Gospel reading is echthros
, the meaning of which carries over very well into our English word “enemy.” The word enemy refers to someone “who feels hatred for, fosters harmful designs against, or engages in antagonistic activities against” you. Who in their right mind could tolerate, let alone “love” or “forgive” such a person? A Christian, that’s who, which is exactly what St. Paul is wrote about in our second reading!
In our Gospel today, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says, as He does elsewhere in this discourse, “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you,” He was challenging the law, the holy Torah. It would be like me standing in this ambo and saying, “You have read it in the Bible, but I say to you…” Of course, the difference between Jesus and I is infinite. He is God, I am not. This is why Rabbi Jacob Neusner, in his short book, A Rabbi Talks With Jesus
, referring to these passages, wrote, “Only God can demand of me what Jesus asks” (68). Of course, the difference between Rabbi Neusner and I is that I believe that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” and so not only can He demand that of me, He does demand it of me and from anyone who would follow Him.
In our first reading, taken from Leviticus, the non-retributive behavior called for is the way for one member of God’s covenant people to behave towards another member of God’s covenant people. Jesus came to universalize the covenant. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “The mission of Jesus consists in bringing together the histories of the nations in the community of the history of Abraham, the history of Israel” (Many Religions- One Covenant: Israel, the Church and the World
, 27). This stands in contrast to Exodus 21:23-25
, which inveighs the much more human, “you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
To forgive another means to relinquish a legitimate claim I can make against him/her. If someone punches me, am I not entitled to sock him back? If someone hurts me, am I not entitled to hurt her? Just as Jesus sought to break the cycle of violence by going to the Cross and asking the Father to forgive those who were nailing Him to it and those who condemned Him to such a painful and humiliating death, we are called to break the cycle of violence, of pain, of hurt, of human dysfunction. As a Christian, my willingness to forgive cannot be dependent on my enemy’s contrition, or sorrow, at having wronged me.
Who can forget the pictures of Bl. John Paul II meeting with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison in order to forgive him in person for shooting and nearly killing him? The question we need to ask ourselves today is, “Who is my Agca?” Who is the person I need to forgive? Forgiveness is a choice. Hence, it is unilateral, something I decide to do. Because of this we cannot confuse forgiveness with reconciliation, which requires the choice of more than one person. If the hurt inflicted on me, the harm done to me, by someone else is very grave and so runs very deep, then I may have to make the painful decision to forgive over and over again.
It is true that Jesus asks more of us than we can give on our own. He does so to show us how much we need Him. We can forgive only because we have been forgiven, which is one of the many great reasons not to avoid going to confession. We can truly love only because we know we are truly loved. Forgiveness is grace and grace is only from God. But we know that forgiveness brings healing, not only to the one who is forgiven, but to the one who undertakes the excruciating work of forgiving. It is often noted that refusing to forgive (a.k.a. holding a grudge) is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die. It would seem that forgiving is more human than we are usually led to believe.
People are fond of quoting St. Paul, who, in the oft-cited passage, is quoting God, to the effect, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom 12:19b
). What they leave out is the first part of the same verse and the following two verses: “Beloved, do not look for revenge” (12:19a
); “Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good” (Rom 12:20-21
). Only God is God and only God can rightly judge.
While your karma may have run over my dogma, I’ll take grace over karma any day. Karma holds that, in the end, you get what you deserve. Grace, on the other hand, stands ready to forgive you of every wrong you have ever committed. What about justice? I like very much what Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Spe salvi
: “Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov
. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened” (par. 44). Even in human terms, there is a difference between seeking revenge and seeking justice. One of the things that distinguish justice from revenge, is that true justice seeks the good, that is, that reform and restoration, or, conversion, of the wrong-doer, whereas revenge only seeks to inflict injury.
Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, The Cost of Discipleship
, wrote, “The call to follow Christ always means a call to share the work of forgiving men their sins. Forgiveness is the Christlike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear.” Bonhoeffer, who was brutally tortured then hung in a Nazi extermination camp, wrote those words in the crucible of real, costly suffering, not from a remote ivory tower. My friends, today the Lord seeks to provoke us, to provoke us to love our enemies all the way into God’s kingdom, which is the only way to true happiness and the only way our fallen world will be redeemed.