Feb. 22, 2020

SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

“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.