But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. — Matthew 5:44-45
This weekend is the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings can be found here. The theme is “love your enemy” which is one of the hardest aspects of being a Christian. I am not naturally a loving person. Yes, I love my family and friends. I am friendly and cordial to strangers I meet or people who are nice to me. However, if I feel someone has slighted me (no matter how minor), my strong reaction is to seek retribution. It is something I am working on but I still have a long ways to go.
This week’s reflection comes from the Irish Jesuits at Living Space. You can find the full reflection here but set forth below is an extended summary:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the pagans do the same?”
Is Jesus out of his mind? Does he really expect genuine, red-blooded human beings to react this way to hostility and violence? How can we possibly love people who do us harm, whom we know to be evil, wicked and corrupt? Are we really to love the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, to love the terrorist, the sexual abuser…?
The problem here is the word ‘love’. Generally speaking, to say we love a person is to have warm feelings of affection towards them or even to be in love with them. Is Jesus asking me to have the same feelings for my life companion as for some terrible human monster? The answer is unequivocally, NO!
‘To love’ in the Gospel context here means to ‘wish the wellbeing of’. It is a unilateral, unconditional desire for the deepest wellbeing of another person. It does not ask me ‘to be in love with’, to have warm feelings for someone who is doing me and others serious harm. That would be ridiculous. But we can sincerely wish the wellbeing of those who harm or persecute us. We pray that they may change, not just for our sake but also for their own. We pray that from hating, hurting people they become loving and caring people.
Far from being unreasonable to pray for such people, there are no people who need our prayers more. On the other hand, to hate them in return is simply to make ourselves just the way they are, to reduce ourselves to their level. And we see what happens in our world when hate and violence are returned by hate and violence.
Nothing eats away at our innards more than resentment, anger, hatred and violence. Sometimes we think we can punish people by hating them but it is we ourselves, not they, who are the real victims.And, of course, it is in our attitude to hostile and misbehaving people that the genuineness of our concern for people is really tested. As Jesus says, it is easy to care for the people who are close to us, who are good to us. To paraphrase the Gospel, even terrorists love terrorists. The Mafia is known for its loyalty to its members – but not to anyone else.
The passage concludes with Jesus saying, “Be perfect, then, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This obviously is an ideal, a goal to be aimed at. And the perfection intended is not total perfection but rather to aim at that total impartiality of a God who extends his providential care and love equally to all. In the dry, searing heat of the Middle East, all, good and bad, have to endure the burning sun and enjoy the gentle, cooling rain. God stretches out his caring love to all, good and bad, and he does not love the bad less than the good. So, if we want to identify with Him, we have no right whatever to withdraw our love, that is, our desire for wholeness, from a single person. Whether a person returns our love or God’s love is their problem and their loss.
Let us not, then, just see this teaching of Jesus as pie in the sky, something that is hopelessly ideal. If we reflect on it, we will begin to see that this is the only reasonable way for us to deal with people both for our own personal growth and fulfillment and as contributing also to that of others. Jesus is not asking us to do something impossible and unreasonable but to open our eyes and see what is the only really sensible way to live and relate with the people around us.
And why should we treat other people with such reverence and concern? Because, as St Paul says today, “you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in you. If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy and you are that temple” — and so is that person next to me right now. Here Paul is speaking specifically of Christians who form the Body of Christ but, in other ways, every single person is made in the image of the Creator and God is present in some way there.
All in all we are being called on to recognize and respond to God’s presence in every single person and creature that we meet. Irrespective of how they behave. And that is true even when the person acts in ways totally contrary to God’s way. In fact, it is precisely then that the God in me has to reach out and affirm the God in the other. Mutual violence only weakens God’s presence in both of us. Paradoxically, the worse a person behaves, the more that one is crying out to be loved and cared for.
At the beginning, we said that the theme of today’s readings was ‘holiness’. Perhaps we now have some idea just where real holiness is to be found.