7th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
19th FEBRUARY 2017
Matthew 5: 38-48
Deacon Tony van Vuuren
We are naturally inclined to resent those who do us wrong. But hatred, if we nurture it, can come between us and our loving God, who wants us to be loving, kind and forgiving.
In today’s Gospel passage taken from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus condemns even the mild form of the “Law of the Talion, (Lex Talionis),” the Babylonian tribal law which prescribes a retaliation in kind. In other words it sets limits on punishment; the punishment not to exceed the crime.
In its place, Jesus gives his new law of love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and no retaliation. For Jesus; retaliation, or even limited vengeance, has no place in the Christian life, even though graceful acceptance of an offense requires great strength, discipline of character as well as strengthening by God’s grace.
The second part of today’s Gospel passage is perhaps the central and the most famous section of the Sermon on the Mount. It gives us the Christian ethic of personal relationships: love one’s neighbors and forgive one’s enemies. Above all, it tells us that what makes Christians different is the grace with which they treat others with loving kindness and mercy, even if they don’t deserve it.
The Old Law never actually said to hate enemies, but that was the way some Jews understood it. Jesus commands that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us to demonstrate that we are children of a merciful heavenly Father.
We are commanded to love our enemies as Jesus loves us.
The Greek word used for loving enemies is agápe, which is the invincible benevolence or good will for another’s highest good. Since agápe is not natural, practicing it is possible only with God’s help. Agápe love is a choice, an act of will, more than a feeling.
We choose to love, not because our enemies deserve our love, but because Jesus loves them so much that he died for them as He did for us. When Jesus talks about “the enemy” he is not necessarily referring to an enemy as in war. He is talking about someone who is possibly close to me —to you; someone in our family; in our community, our neighbourhood, in our workplace; someone who is making life difficult for us.
Who are the people we try to avoid at all costs, whom we find hard to forgive, who awaken in us feelings of unease, fear and anger, which can easily turn into hatred? Hatred is a very dangerous thing. It burns up a hundred times more energy than love. It can drive out everything else and will corrode and warp our mind and soul; creating a legacy of bitterness, hostility and resentment.
Christ’s way is a better way. To be able to forgive and turn the other cheek is not a soft way. It’s a hard way that calls for great strength and toughness and sacrifice. A perfect example of this of course is our witness to Christ during his trial and crucifixion “Love your enemies!” –this is one of the most revolutionary things ever said. Love our enemies? Most of us find it hard enough to love our friends and family all of the time.
How can we be expected to love our enemies? To love’ in the Gospel context means to ‘wish the well being of’. It is a unilateral, unconditional desire for the deepest wellbeing of another person. It does not ask any of us ‘to be in love with’, to have warm fuzzy feelings for someone who is doing us serious harm. But we can sincerely wish the well being 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. Further, Jesus tells us that the basic reason for doing this is to manifest God’s love towards us. He points to the fact that the action of God is unconquerable benevolence.
He is the one who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and when the rain finally arrives here it will fall on the good and on the bad.
The Gospel passage concludes with Jesus saying, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” On the face of it that sounds like a commandment which cannot possibly have anything to do with us. Surely no one of us can even faintly connect ourselves with perfection.
(Except maybe when we fill in our CV’s) But seriously though this obviously is an ideal, a goal to be aimed at. The perfection intended is not total perfection for us, but rather to pray for ourselves for that total impartiality of a God who extends his providential care and love equally to all; good and bad, and he does not love the bad less than the good people. 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 not important. 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.
He tells us to open our eyes and see the reality and discover the most sensible way of relating ourselves with the people around us. Our faith assures us that in our relationship with God we will be able to do as he did and now instructs us: to be generous to those in need; not retaliate when offended; pray for our persecutors and even, with God’s grace, love our enemies.