by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the idente missionaries
New York, February 23, 2020. | Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Book of Leviticus 19: 1-2.17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Saint Matthew 5: 38-48.
In one of the Christian catacombs of Rome, the following story was found:
A rich man named Proculus had hundreds of slaves. The slave named Paulus was so trustworthy that Proculus made him the steward over his whole household. One day Proculus took Paulus with him to the slave market to buy some new workers. Before the bargaining began, they examined the men to see if they were strong and healthy.
Among the slaves stood a weak, old man. Paulus urged his owner to buy this slave.
- Proculus answered: But he is good for nothing.
- Go ahead, buy him, Paulus insisted. He is cheap. And I promise that the work in your household will get done even better than before.
So Proculus agreed and purchased the elderly slave. And Paulus made good on his word. The work went better than ever. But Proculus observed that Paulus now worked for two men. The old slave did no work at all, while Paulus tended to him, gave him the best food, and made him rest.
Proculus was curious, so he confronted Paulus: Who is this slave? You know I value you. I don’t mind your protecting this old man. But tell me who he is. Is he your father who has fallen into slavery?
- Paulus answered: It is someone to whom I owe more than to my father.
- Your teacher, then?
- No. Somebody to whom I owe even more.
- Who then?
- This is my enemy.
- Your enemy!
- Yes. He is the man who killed my father and sold us, the children, as slaves. Proculus stood speechless. As for me, said Paulus, I am a disciple of Christ, who has taught us to love our enemies and to reward evil with good.
When we use the term love, it is often misused or used ambiguously. Love is not a feeling. One thing that is true for most everyone is that we are more likely to love those who love us than to love those who don’t love us in return. However, Jesus insists that it is only in loving our enemies that we are to become children of God. This teaching of Jesus compels us to rethink what we normally mean by enemy and to love.
Our enemies run the spectrum from mild hurt, to a serious offense, to one who devastated our lives permanently. Our enemies may attack us physically or merely gossip about us. Some of them seek to harm us for their own interests. We face many of these enemies in our lives because they will act against us due to greed, envy, jealousy, pride or lust. And of course when exposed or confronted, they will react even with greater hostility and defensiveness. Sometimes the enemies who hurt us most are people close to us, who know us very well. Others, of course, have little relationship with us and witnessing our life leads them, for some reason, to some form of hatred.
Sometimes enemies flatter you to get something from you. Sometimes they criticize you. Sometimes they try to keep you from dreaming and being excited about what God is doing in your life because they feel bad about themselves.
We must also be aware that we all have perceived enemies. They are those who have a different opinion, or who correct us, perhaps rightly, but in a way we do not like. In many cases, these are people who want nothing bad to happen to us.
Everyone seeks to protect himself from his perceived enemies, because we seek to protect our vested interests. This was the case of the Jewish leaders. Jesus’ presence and ministry were a challenge to the religious institutions of their day. We do not like people who challenge our plans and our decisions. We tend to take them too personally and as a consequence, instead of weighing the value of their arguments, we spend more time finding ways to counter their objections. Our insecurity and defense mechanisms blind us from seeing the truth.
Too often, our perceived enemies become our victims.
It is important to recognize that every enemy is a victim of his own hate and ultimately of some form of insensitivity. Of course, Christ is the one who states this most clearly and precisely when He Himself was the target of the most ferocious hatred: Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.
It is fundamental that we understand this. In many cases, the more you are exposed to the ills of violence, deception, accusations, and to your own passions, the stronger your inner urge to protect yourself and the harder your heart becomes. Here is an appalling example from the Old Testament:
In 2Samuel 10: 1-5 we read that David wanted to send his regrets to a neighboring king after the death of the king’s father, so he sent emissaries to attend the funeral of the foreign dignitary. But the dad king’s son, who was the new king, was counseled by his advisors to mistrust David’s representatives. The new king decided to have half of the beards of the emissaries shaved off and cut their robes off at the waist so they were naked from the waist down. In that time, a man’s beard was a sign of masculinity. If you shaved a man’s beard, you had robbed a man his dignity. The same went for cutting their robes.
It is particularly painful when a friend becomes an enemy, which is a cruel experience My most trusted friend has turned against me, though he ate at my table (Ps 41: 10).
When we declare someone an enemy, a “hateful one,” what naturally follows is our own hate, as well. And we feel pretty justified… But hate is like a wildfire: all it takes is a little flame and some wind, and what seemed manageable and even desirable quickly becomes a roaring blaze that consumes everything it touches.
When we are angry and hurting, our human nature eagerly jumps in, ready to “deliver justice”. We feel the need to retaliate, prove someone wrong, or explain our side of things. That is why it is always emphasized that showing concern for people who inflict pain upon us is difficult and that forgiveness is hard work.
Of course, there are many people who are not vindictive, who do not hold grudges, which is already exemplary, but there is little in their demeanor that wants to love those enemies.
Christ gives us two concrete instruments to go beyond revenge and sadness: to love our enemies and to pray for them. Of course, recognizing that whoever deceives us or wants to harm us really “does not know what he is doing” is fundamental, because it makes us understand that that person needs to be loved and our position, the fact of being his victim, makes our love more noticeable, more striking.
This is possible when we take advantage of and are sensitive to the presence of Christ in us, especially when we are aware that every day he is forgiving us our mediocrity and our little faith:
The specialized ethics or morality that Christ brings to humanity is above every ethics or morality that subsists in all religions and in all cultures in virtue of the divine constitutive presence of the Absolute in the human spirit. If Christ, the incarnate Divine Verb, elevates constitutive ethics to sanctifying ethics in virtue of elevating the divine constitutive presence to the divine sanctifying presence, we have to encounter a new ethics that is offered to the human being with the aim of his full realization. Constitutive ethics disposes the human person to undertake, having received baptism, sanctifying ethics (Mystical Conception of Anthropology).
This Christian love, called agape, calls us to do something that clearly goes against our inclinations. By calling us to love our enemies, the very people who hate us and who have either done us harm or wish to do so, agape stretches human love beyond its limits.
We must love our enemies with agape love, not because our enemies deserve our love, or because they will automatically convert, but because Jesus loved them so much that he died for them.
A Jewish Rabbi was asked to give a summary of the whole Law. He answered: What is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole law and all else is an explanation. And the Stoic philosophers used to teach: What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not you do to any other. When Confucius was asked: Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life? he answered: Is not Reciprocity such a word? What you do not want to be done to yourself, do not do to others.
These are all beautiful sentiments, and yet they all expressed in the negative; they are all about avoiding misfortune and suffering. And such is the great difference between these sayings and the teaching of Christ. It is often not hard to stop yourself, to restrain yourself from doing something bad, much more demanding is actually to do something good for
someone else. And so Christian conduct in particular consists, not in refraining from bad things, but in actively doing good things.
The command to love our enemies is a call to love in the way God loves us. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans 5:10, he tells us that while we were sinners (i.e., God’s enemies), God showed His love through the sacrificial death of Christ. On the cross of Calvary, Jesus prayed that God the Father would forgive the people who tortured and crucified Him.
Truly, in loving our enemies in this way, we become more human, for to be human is to be the bearer of the image and likeness of God. We truly reflect the image of our heavenly Father and thus we are accredited as true sons of the Most High. Such a love therefore means identification with the heart of the Father. Jesus exhorts us, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” Only then can we be called true sons of God.
The characteristic of the children of God is the love offered to those who do not deserve it, and the greetings addressed to those who behave as enemies. The disciple wholeheartedly wishes the good even for those who hate him. For that, he does not take into account the evil that was done to him and commits himself to make this good possible.
Forgiveness is like a muscle. It needs to be used and developed. We get in shape for the big acts of forgiveness by practicing with small acts of forgiveness. If we learn to forgive little things, then we develop the courage and aptitude to forgive bigger things that can knock us off our feet. In the Second Reading, St. Paul gives us a powerful reason to be holy through this form of compassion: we are the temples of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of God lives in us. The indwelling Holy Spirit helps us by His gifts, fruits and charisms to live the very life of Christ. Every moment the heart of man is guided by the promptings of the Spirit, which suggests how to respond to the needs of the brother.
The perfection of the Jew was the exact observance of the precepts of the Torah. For the disciple of Christ, it is the boundless love as that of the Father. Perfect is one who lacks nothing, who has integrity, whose heart is not divided between God and the ego. The availability to give everything, not keeping anything for oneself, to put us totally at the service of people, including the enemy, places us in the footsteps of Christ and leads to the perfection of the Father who gives his all and does not exclude anyone from his love.