“LOVE YOUR ENEMIES AND PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PERSECUTE YOU”
Readings: 1st- Lev. 19:1-2, 17-18; 1 Cor. 3:16-23; Gospel- Matt. 5:38-48
The Old Testament standard is this, “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.” Wouldn’t it be great if we all adhere to such a basic biblical injunction and live happily with the people around us? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can live without malice or grudges for anyone? Moses reminds the Israelites of their religious commitment in that sense. First, they are to love God, a great step towards holiness. Then they are to love their neighbor as they love themselves. One who loves God must not take revenge and must not bear malice against their neighbor.
What does it mean to be holy? Christ says, “Be you perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). It means striving to live according to the mind of the Father. In the second reading, Saint Paul reminds the Corinthian Church of God’s calling, to embrace divine wisdom and heed the invitation to holiness. Holiness, in Saint Paul’s writing, implies that Christians recognize that they are consecrated, temples where God’s Spirit dwells. The temple is sacred, a place where holy sacrifice is offered. It is the abode of the Holy Spirit. If our bodies are God’s temple, it means that anger, revenge, grudge, malice, can only spoil it and make God’s temple filthy. To be holy, we must not entertain evil thoughts against our neighbors.
For Christ, loving one's neighbor, brother or sister is not enough; Christians ought to do more. Continuing in the beatitudes, Jesus, again raises the Old Testament standard, “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.” Jesus is not satisfied with the status quo of merely seeing love as a favor returned. To say that we should love our neighbors and to hate the enemy is not a Christian principle, rather an old religious engagement. Pagans and non-Christians also do the same; they have a sense of justice that arises not from Christian principles but as repayment or reward for allegiance. In that sense, tax collectors and pagans can also show love, they favor their cronies. The difference is that Christian love is limitless. It is the basis for holiness.
Christ demands two things from us. First, we should be like our heavenly Father. Believers should be models of holiness. They should always aim high. They are expected to reflect the image of the Trinity which is love itself. Being like God distinguishes believers from non-believers, the Christian way from the secular way. Our standard is determined by Christian principles.
Second, Jesus wants us to play fools for the sake of our faith. Christianity is not a give and take. It is not based on what one receives in expectation or a return merited. That’s what the Old Testament law prescribed. Within the Jewish setting, the tax collectors and their religious leaders set the standards. There were preferences and favors. It was about giving back to those who gave you, loving those who loved you, rewarding those who were loyal to you. For them, that is love.
For us Christians, love becomes pure sacrifice. That is the only way to be children of God, to be like our Father. Jesus sets the higher standard for us, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow” (Matt. 5:40). Christ himself exemplified this on the Cross. He let the Jewish soldiers divide his clothing among them. He pardoned those who spat on his face. He offered the Father’s love to his executioners. He opened the gates of paradise to the repentant thief. The Saints lived holy lives by emulating Christ and forgiving their detractors. One saint that always stands out to me is Saint Maria Goretti, the very young saint who pardoned her murderer with these words, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli… and I want him with me in heaven forever.”Alessandro made it through Maria Goretti's forgiveness. Very powerful!
It always amazes me when someone comes to me and says that she is happy that she’s doing well in her spiritual life while not willing to forgive someone. Usually, you hear such statements, “It’s just that it is so difficult to forgive this or that person in my life. Apart from that, I am good.” That sounds ironic as if there is some hindrance to holiness. Christianity can only thrive amidst sacrifice. Jesus wants us to aim higher but at the same time to play the fool. How then can you love your enemies or pray for those who persecute you when you are unable to love the members of your household? You must play the fool to aim at the highest Christian standard of praying for those who persecute you.
“TO NONE DOES HE GIVE LICENSE TO SIN”
Readings: 1st- Sir. 15:15-20; 2nd- 1 Cor. 2:6-10; Gospel- Matt. 5:17-37
We have been presented with a challenge in the readings of today, to live according to the higher standards required of Christians.
The first reading opens with the importance of free-will which is God’s special gift to humanity. Man’s exercise of free will is not because of God’s inability to take charge of his creation. It is not because God is weak and cannot control the vast created universe. Rather, by free will, God bestowed upon man the capacity to choose. Hence, life and death, good and evil, light and darkness, are fundamental choices available to humanity by God’s generosity.
The wise Ben Sirach recognizes the infinite power of God this way, “Immense is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.” Even though man chooses the wrong path most of the time, Sirach vindicates God’s position in our wrong choices. He affirms, “No one does he command to act unjustly, to none does he give license to sin” (15:20). Human beings use their freedom wrongly because their actions are based on earthly wisdom contaminated by evil. Human wisdom is corruptible. Divine wisdom is mysterious, hidden, predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew” (1 Cor. 2:7-8). The wisdom of God is only revealed through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus reminds his listeners in the gospel about his mission, he has come not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s commandments. He invites his listeners to rely on God’s commandments in making choices in order to so set good examples for others. Jesus helps the Jews with the correct interpretation of the Law, namely, they must go beyond external manifestations and consider the significance of their interior dispositions.
Jesus sets out some contrasts to the Jewish laws as follows:
Old Law no. 1: Against killing: “You shall not kill, and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.”
Jesus’ antithesis: “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Anger alone can make someone guilty. The heart stores up transgressions through anger. Therefore, the disciples of Jesus should be able to forgive their enemies on time. They have a greater responsibility to avoid whatever is associated with killing. If we let anger build up, then it devolves into conflicts that might lead to killing. We must make peace out of court.
Old Law no. 2: Against adultery: “You shall not commit adultery.”
Jesus’ antithesis: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus warns his followers to have custody of their thoughts. The concupiscence of the flesh begins in the mind. Hence, to guard the senses against lustful thoughts and desires is the first step to avoiding lustful actions. No wonder Christ said, “But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him” (Mk. 7:22). We must keep our hearts pure from evil thoughts and intentions.
Old Law no. 3: Against divorce: “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.”
Jesus’ Antithesis: “Whoever divorces his wife -unless the marriage is unlawful- causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” For the followers of Jesus, the question of divorce in marriage must not be part of the agenda. Jesus reinforces the fact that marriage that is validly contracted stands indissoluble. The man does not have any prerogative as in the Old Testament to send his wife away for the slightest provocation. Both the man and the woman have equal responsibility in marriage.
Old Law no. 4: Against Oath-taking: “Do not take a false oath but make good to the Lord all that you vow.”
Jesus’ Antithesis: “Do not swear at all… Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,” and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’
Jesus condemns oath-taking since it only stretches the truth too far. Why swear when you can say a simple truth? Christ redirects Christians to the ultimate reality of truth. Truth must precede the actions of every believer. We must identify with Jesus -the way, truth, and life.
The message in today’s gospel calls our attention to how much internal dispositions are crucial in our lives. They help us to discover the causes of our actions rather than base judgment on the effects. The wise Ben Sirach states, “to none does he give license to sin.” God does not regard anyone’s sins differently. Whether man or woman, young or old, black or white, rich or poor. God frowns at actions that contradict the Commandments.
If we take this a little beyond the Christian scope, we might wonder why some people think that they have the license to kill; they do it without qualms of conscience. Think about the evils of Christian persecution in the world, how numerous Christians in various parts such as the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, are killed. Think about terrorists and Islamist extremists who kill with impunity. They grossly misuse their gift of free will. They abuse their freedom. They put God to test and try the patience of Christians. They inflict untold pain, suffering, and hardship on others. They have no license to sin.
If you sin, go back to God and ask for forgiveness. Never remain obstinate in sin. Never become comfortable in iniquity. Fight the urge to sin from the inside. Evil desires breed crime. That is the metaphorical “right eye” that Jesus describes in the gospel which leads to sin. That is the metaphorical “right hand.” Christ says if it causes you to sin, uproot it and have it destroyed, “It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.” The Christian standard will always higher.
YOU ARE THE SALT OF THE EARTH. YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.
Readings: 1st- Is. 58:7-10; 2nd- 1 Cor. 2:1-5; Gospel- Matt. 5:13-16
Moses wrote to the Israelites in the Old Testament, “Every cereal offering that you present to the Lord shall be seasoned with salt. Do not let the salt of the covenant of your God be lacking from your cereal offering” (Lev. 2:13). In another place he wrote, “This fragrant powder, expertly prepared, is to be salted and so kept pure and sacred” (Ex. 30:35). In each of these instances, the quality of salt is strongly manifested. Salt is used for seasoning. Salt contributes strongly to giving food its spicy quality. Salt is a strong preservative, sustains the taste of food. Salt has also a purifying effect. When the people of Israel discovered that their water had been polluted and complained to the prophet Elisha, he requested that they brought salt to him. Then “Elisha went out to the spring, cast the salt into it, and said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘I have healed this water. No longer will it cause death or unfruitfulness” (2 Kgs. 2:19-21). This is the origin of the blessing of water with the salt which is still the practice in the Church to date.
Christ says to his disciples in the gospel, “You are the salt of the earth.” This is powerful imagery reminding them to display the savory quality of good fragrance and taste for others. The disciples are to serve as preservatives of virtue. They are to serve as purifying agents to those they encounter. They are to bring a healing presence everywhere thereby making others feel the goodness of God in their lives. God’s disciples are signs of his friendship with humanity. They are not to be lost in the crowd but to make people feel their taste by good acts performed in love.
Christ also uses the imagery of light to depict the mission of the disciples, “You are the light of the world.” Already we hear him say of himself, “I am the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12). As light, Jesus brought salvation to mankind. Jesus healed the sick, fed the poor, ate with tax collectors, and raised the dead. That way, he brought the kingdom of God to his followers. Today, he invites the disciples to radiate the qualities that bring God’s presence to those who either see them or listen to their words. The light shines, illumines, guides, and directs. The light also brings warmth to the room. The presence of light is indeed comforting.
The first reading applies this Christian code in practical ways. The prophet Isaiah invites us to perform practical works that demonstrate our faith: “share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own” (Is. 58:7). These don’t seem like anything strange to us, rather they remind us of how to keep representing the sweet fragrance of the good news wherever we find ourselves. Prophet Isaiah states further, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.” And Christ concludes, “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matt. 5:16).
The best way to make our light shine, to make our salt be tasty is through good works, through acts of charity. Christ wants us to be practical; Christians who are involved in ministry. Christ wants our Christian lives to be impactful. Doing good works within the community and in the world is a great way to express our faith. We are called not to be insipid believers, believers who just cross their arms and pray without action. We are not called to be believers who think and hope that God will come down to shovel the snow after they fall and cover our driveways. We are not called to be believers who look and wish that things will change in our world while we stand aloof. We are called to change the situations and circumstances of others. Faith without good deeds is dead just as salt without taste is useless. Christ reminded us about the last things that will form his judgment of the nations this way, “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25:34-37). It is the same thing as saying to them, “I saw your light shine out among those in need. Come and enjoy the eternal light of God’s kingdom.”
Being salt of the earth and light of the world is not an option. For our faith to be not just efficient but dignified, it must have the power to impact others. Faith might be blind in believing God, not blind in doing good works. It must be active and transferable through virtuous acts and charity. Saint Paul puts it this way, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us triumphantly as captives in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him” (2 Cor. 2:14). How many lives have you touched this year already? That’s our takeaway question for this week.
Readings: 1st- Mal. 3:19-20a; 2nd- 2 Thess. 3:7-12; Gospel- Lk. 21:5-19
“By your perseverance, you will secure your lives (Lk. 21:19)
What does it mean when Jesus says, “By your perseverance, you will secure your lives?” It seems like some paradox: our faith will attract persecution and possibly death, yet we’ll be rewarded with life. As we near the end of the liturgical year, the readings focus on the end of times. The disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when these things are about to happen?” The reason for their curiosity is because Jesus was telling them how the beautiful and expensive structures and decorations will be no more. The costly stones and adornments of the temple! What will happen to them? Jesus says they will be no more at some point. That time is a period of reckoning when God will bring everything to accountability before him.
The prophet Malachi sets the precedence in the first reading by presenting some harsh images of the judgment that will come. The prophet exposes the unfortunate consequences that will befall proud persons and evildoers. He maintains that the day is “coming” which will be like an oven, blazing and burning down all that is connected with evil. The poor and arrogant will burn on fire like stubble. But those who fear the Lord will receive his soothing and healing touch. The sun of justice will shine on them. Malachi’s graphic metaphors of this horrific “Day of the Lord” is intended to elicit change in the people, inviting them to turn from evil behaviors and seek God's presence.
In the gospel, Jesus warns against two things, falling for false prophecy and despairing because of persecution. As in the time of prophet Malachi, Jesus reveals that Christian persecution is a part of the life of believers. Christian persecution will be characterized by betrayals, disappointments, and fear. Jesus highlights, “You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends.” One danger arising from threats to religious freedom is the rise of (false) prophecy. When times get tough, when faith gets ridiculed, believers become vulnerable. Once Christianity is under attack, the tendency is that people might accept messages that present an easy alternative. End-time prophecies thrive. False prophets assume messianic roles and take advantage of the chaos to deceive believers. Such messages that make false claims might become popular, “I am he,” “The time has come.” Jesus warns us, “See that you not be deceived… Do not follow them!”
What comes to mind here is the passage about the narrow gate where Jesus remarks, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt. 7:13-14). False prophecies provide a way that is wide, cozy, and attractive. We must be careful how to react in the face of disasters, natural or human. They’re not necessarily signs of the end times. They may not also imply that God is ending creation.
Last week, I visited a man who requested to have a priest. The man seemed to have so many questions about things bugging him. He repeated these questions several times to me, “If God is perfect, why does he not stop earthquakes and disasters that we have from time to time? Why does God not stop evil people from committing evil?” Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I had the complete answers to those concerns or if my answers would change his perceptions. I tried to focus his attention on the goodness of God. One thing is clear, we didn’t beg God to create the universe. I hope we realize that. The world is all his, in the first place. Everything belongs to Him. Yet, He lets us do with the universe what we want. God is not the problem, we are. I tried to tell this man that earthquakes and disasters are the results of humanity’s abuse of freedom given to us by God. We’ve messed up the universe, so, creation is not the same. That’s why Saint Paul wrote that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:22). Human beings have become evil because they’ve sold out. They’ve given their hearts to the devil.
Christ warns us today, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he.’ The time has come.’ He reminds us, “There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” But the positive thing is this, “It will lead to your giving testimony.”
Friends, let us not be deceived. Let us not be swept off our spiritual and religious foundation. Let us not be made to become panicky to the point of compromise. We are invited to brace up for the challenges that come our way just because of who we are. Our faith is an essential part of our being. Faith means a lot to us, otherwise, we won’t wake up early in the morning to be here. It is important to us in the formation of our children. It matters so much to us how it is treated, how our religious beliefs are regarded. Jesus says, “See that you not be deceived.”
Christianity means discipleship. It means witnessing. It means readiness to follow Christ which includes the inconveniences that are associated with it. The solution to religious opposition is not lukewarm. The solution to threats against our faith is not mediocrity. We might live in a time where our faith is challenged or opposed, but we don’t have to apologize for our faith, for being Christians, for being believers, for being followers of Christ. We might live in a time when religion is consciously removed from the schools to deny our children the opportunity to learn about Christ, but we don't have to give up our identity. Jesus offers us hope. Hear what he says, “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance, you will secure your lives” (Lk. 21:18-19).
Readings: 1st- 2 Macc. 7:1-2, 9-14; 2nd- 2 Thess. 2:16-3:5; Gospel- Lk. 20:27-38
TO GOD ALL ARE ALIVE
It’s all about the reality of the resurrection in the readings of today. We see how the seven sons in the book of Maccabees experience torture. They help us understand the futility of the human body. The sons and their mother are persecuted for refusing to eat pork in violation of God’s law, a pre-Christian Jewish belief that emphasizes the dignity of dying for one’s faith. The reading points strongly to the importance of the afterlife. Those who are executed do not hesitate to give up their bodies despite physical pains. They believe that God will reward them eternally for remaining faithful to the end. The last son in the reading exclaims, “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised by him; but for you, there will be no Resurrection to life” (2 Macc. 7:14).
This sets the stage for the gospel. The Sadducees who do not believe in the resurrection or in angels question Christ. They use a tricky image to communicate their denial of the resurrection. As usual, Moses is their Old Testament authority. They cite the Torah that someone’s brother must take his wife to raise descendants for the brother if he died without having any offspring. They present the case of seven brothers who had all married the same woman without any of them having a child with her. So, they ask Christ, “At the resurrection whose wife will she be having been married to all seven?” Christ’s response is astonishing. It's not just about marriage or about begetting children, it’s about being truly alive, being fruitful for the sake of God's kingdom.
The children of this age marry for the sake of having children. They love to enjoy earthly benefits. The children of the Kingdom marry to make heaven. Such persons are not focused on their bodies. They concentrate on what makes them live forever in heaven. Since the Sadducees used the Torah (Moses’ writing) to counter the Resurrection, Jesus refers them to the same authority of the Scripture to prove the reality of the resurrection. At the burning bush, Moses referred to God as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Even though those ancestors might have been physically dead, they are alive in God. They are alive in the faith. To God all are alive.
Who are the dead? They are those who lived as though everything ended here on earth. Those who were lost in wealth, power, and earthly possession. Recall the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk. 16:19-31). While the rich man died and was buried, Lazarus died and was taken to Abraham’s side (Lk. 16:22). The rich man sighted Abraham from a distance and called out to him for help. The rich man was in Hades, a place of torment. He was truly dead. The rich man realized that in heaven, the dead are not dead. They live with God. Only from heaven can the dead communicate. They are able to offer help because they are like angels- messengers of God. For that reason, the rich man called out to Abraham, "Send Lazarus to my family" (Lk. 16:27). Again, he begged, “If someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent” (Lk. 16:29). He cannot do it from where he is. He is dead forever, hence he asks for help from those who are truly living. To God all are alive.
The resurrection of Christ is at the center of our Christian belief. Saint Paul makes a strong case when he writes to the Corinthians, “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (15:12-14). This is what the Sadducees try to do questioning Christ. Saint Paul’s answer is that, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). Through Christ, the resurrection becomes an essential part of our Christian faith.
Those who suffer persecution or torture for the sake of Christ will rise from the dead. Those who give up material or physical satisfaction will rise from the dead. Jesus reminds Peter, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29). So, the real-life is the life that is productive for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
We profess in the Creed, “the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Without the resurrection, our hope would be meaningless. Christians who are persecuted here on earth, like those sons in the first reading, will rise with Christ. Their reward will be great in heaven (Matt. 5:10).
I was told of the story of some children who lost their mom. The woman died in an attempt to save one of the children who was attacked by bees. While the children were playing in the filed right in front of the house, they were attacked by bees. This woman heard the little baby crying and rushed out. As she picked up the child, the swarm of bees attacked her. On the way to the hospital she died. But the baby survived. That’s like a martyr. She died saving her child. She will rise with Christ.
We are children of the Resurrection. In God, we all have become alive. We live for the world beyond where we shall see God as He really is. That’s what the Resurrection does: 1). it transforms our physical bodies. 2). It makes us assume the likeness of the angels. 3). It gives us the privilege of seeing God as he is. 4). It brings us to the abiding identity of living in eternity where we die no more. We conquer death forever because to God all are alive.