Homily: A World Without Enemies

    In Jesus’ time it was important to determine the arrival of daybreak when the first offerings were to be made in the temple. A rabbi asked his students what criterion might be used to determine that the night had ended. One student said the night had ended when there was enough light to tell a goat from a sheep. Another said when you could distinguish an apple tree from a fig tree. The rabbi gave this answer: “A new day has arrived when you can look at a human face, and see a brother or a sister. If you are unable to see a brother or a sister in every human face, you are still in the darkness of night.”

    If you were to strip away all the secondary elements of the Christian religion, what would be left?  What is the teaching that is most characteristic of Christianity.”

    Today’s Gospel presents a paradox. The core of Jesus’ teaching in the “Sermon on the Mount.” is proclaimed as love of enemies, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. Yet, today, and throughout 2000 years of history, these qualities are often banished to the very margins of Christianity by many who claim to speak for Christianity.

   Mahatma Gandhi, addressing a Christian group, once said:  “If I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I would not hesitate to say, ‘Oh yes, I am a Christian…. But sadly, I can tell you that much of what passes as Christianity in our world is a refutation of the Sermon on the Mount.”

    I think that is what endears so many to Pope Francis. First of all, he leads a simple life, focused on the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. And he speaks of God’s call to peace, love and forgiveness.

   It is a sad indictment of Christianity that those who most stress its fundamentals are often characterized by militarism, advocacy of capital punishment and hostility, not only toward those who oppose them, but even toward those who disagree with them. Virtually no Christian group has completely adopted Jesus’ teaching on love of enemy as a critical test of orthodoxy.

   Yet Jesus issues four ringing commands: love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who maltreat you. And He then rejects a culture of violence characterized by a tit-for-tat mentality and He proposes instead a strategy of breaking the cycle of evil.

    Then He again repeats the command: love your enemy and do good. Why? The command is rooted in the very nature of God, who is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Matthew follows this exhortation with the statement, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” Luke writes: “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful,” and only then will you be sons and daughters of God. In the scriptures, Love of enemies is the defining characteristic of God’s family.

    Biblical mercy is compassionate love and concern, expressed beautifully in the psalm, “He redeems your life from destruction; he crowns you with kindness and compassion.” Luke’s Good Samaritan, who rescues a half-dead traveler, “shows mercy”.

   But one must be careful here. These commands can be dismissed as idealistic or, worse, as ploys used by the powerful to exploit the weak. Even in the New Testament itself, slaves are told to love their masters, and abused spouses are often told to react with love and forgiveness.

    But the true meaning of the love command is not surrender to evil and violence, but imitation of God’s love by freeing enemies of their hatred and violent destructiveness, “to turn the disobedient toward the wisdom of the just”.

    Evil is not to hold sway in human life, but rather mercy and love are to prevail. Love of enemies in not a substitute for the quest for a world of justice and peace; it is its driving force. The nonviolent quest for justice and resistance to evil embodied by Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. make incarnate Jesus’ command of love.

    If you want to pray for peace, pray today’s responsorial psalm, Psalm 103, savoring in it the mercy and compassion of God. And, think of someone who has been “ungrateful and wicked”, as the psalm says, and pray that this person may experience God’s goodness. And pray that the politics and religion of forgiveness may supplant the politics and religion of hatred in this world.            (© John R. Donahue, S.J)

   We too take the name of God in vain when, under the guise of defending some orthodox doctrine or practice, we engage in destructive, personal attacks upon those who differ with us.

    We can all identify with those who have fallen from Grace, the woman caught in adultery, the blind man who cried out, “Lord, Jesus, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.”; Peter, who denied Him three times, after the Resurrection, hearing Jesus say to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?”

    In need of forgiveness –often fallen from the pure joy of living in harmony with God’s truth and love. “What is our innocence, what is our guilt? All are naked, none is safe”

   We say, for example, that a friendship has ended because some infidelity has destroyed it. The friendship can come into being again through forgiveness, creative love given and  received. Jesus re-creates the woman who was to be stoned into her beauty as divine image through his forgiveness. He tells her the good news that she is free to walk away from the mess she is in and begin a new life    

      Years ago Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, gazed upon the world’s violence and wrote: “The beginning of the fight against hatred, the basic Christian answer to hatred, is not the commandment to love, but what must necessarily come before that command in order to make the commandment bearable and comprehensible. It is a prior commandment to Believe – to believe that God is Love, is  a Forgiving God.

    “The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved,” and “until this discovery is made in one’s life, until this liberation has been brought about by the divine mercy, men and women are imprisoned in hate, and to kill and to reject others who disagree. ” We who are often ungrateful and wicked, but who receive God’s mercy and love, can now see in the face of our enemies the very face of God.   (Marianne Moore)

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