Today in my homily on (Mt 5:38-48), I spoke on God’s Law of Love based on the words of Pope Francis last June to the crowd’s gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Now that my Masses are over, I am browsing through twitter, as I watch the closing ceremonies in Sochi. Here is homily I found a link to by Fr. James Martin SJ. Fr. Martin speaks of his personal experience of learning to live this law:
“Today’s Gospel: Can we really love our enemies?
I’m sure you’ve heard dozens of homilies about today’s famous Gospel reading (Mt 5:38-48). I’m sure you know, for example, that the law of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth” was meant to keep revenge within certain boundaries and avoid the escalation of violence. It was designed to set a limit on retaliation–not an excuse for taking out someone else’s eye.
You may have even heard homilies about the meaning of the “right cheek.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus indicates that the blow comes from the back of the assailant’s hand and therefore constitutes an insult, rather than a violent assault. So perhaps Jesus was speaking more about insults. It’s also possible that “the other cheek” is a misunderstanding or mistranslation of the word “back” in Aramaic. Some New Testament scholars think that Jesus was saying that when insulted by a slap on the cheek, you should simply turn away, or turn your back, and not retaliate.
You’ve probably heard all of these things in homilies.
But no matter how my homilies you may have heard, you probably, like most Christians, and like me, still have a hard time with the idea of loving your enemies, and praying for those who persecute you. It is without a doubt the hardest of Jesus’s teachings.
The other day Pope Francis, in a homily, talked about the kind of love that we most often have for one another. We say, “We love our families; we love our friends; we love our neighbors and we love our coworkers. But that person and that person and that person, we don’t love.” Pope Francis rightly said that this is not what we’re called to. This kind of exclusionary love is in fact a form of hatred. And it’s type of hatred that most of us give ourselves a pass on.
But let’s look at the most difficult part of this reading, that is, loving your enemies, praying for those who persecute you, and forgiving everyone, which is implicit in loving your enemies and praying for your persecutors.
Many years ago, far from here, I lived in a Jesuit community with a Jesuit who despised me. It might surprise you, or scandalize you, to know that this particular Jesuit refused to speak to me for many years, snubbed me whenever he passed me, and generally made unkind remarks when the two of us were alone. It was a great cross. I tried to reconcile with him, but he refused to speak to me. I even offered to apologize if I had done anything to offend him. Over time, I spoke to many Jesuits friends, to my spiritual director and even to my provincial to try to figure out what to do.
But nothing changed. It was extremely painful for me.
Every time I passed him in the hall, or sat at table with him, or was in the same room with him, he let me know, through a variety of means, that he hated me. And each time–given that I tried all I could to reconcile with him–I had to make a choice. Essentially, there were two choices: I could love him, or not.
I could either hate him back, and let that hatred burn within me and deepen. Or I could forgive him and try to let it all go. Now in Jesuit spirituality, as you know, St. Ignatius Loyola reminds us that the good spirit encourages us, builds us up, consoles us. The spirit that leads away from God causes “gnawing anxiety,” moves us towards low feelings, and leads eventually to despair.
In time I came to see that holding onto that hatred was leading me to a place of darkness and despair. While forgiving him every time I saw him led me to a greater sense of peace. I had to make that choice every time I interacted with him, which was several times a day.
Why am I telling you this? You don’t live in a Jesuit community. You may never have to face a person who hates you for years. But I’m sure, because we all live in a human world, that in your own family, among your friends, in your workplace, or among your neighbors there are people who it’s hard to love, and people you must forgive. And here we have a choice, Jesus tells us. And is quite clear: either love them and forgive them and pray for them, or hate them hope that they suffer, and work against them. It really is a choice. It’s not an easy choice, by no means. I understand this. But it is effectively a choice
Jesus is telling us what choice we must make. First of all, he’s commanding us to do this. But more to the point, he’s inviting us to do this, because he knows that this is the way that leads to life. Because forgiveness is a gift to both the person who forgives and to the one forgiven.
You’re probably expecting me to say now, at the end of this homily, that eventually the two of us made up, set aside differences, and reconciled. But that’s not what happened at all. This person continued to hate me until the time I moved out of the community. Nothing changed.
The only thing that did change was my response. It was hard, and Jesus knows it’s hard– remember he forgives his executioners on the cross–so it’s not as if he doesn’t know is talking about. Loving our enemies, praying for persecutors, and forgiving those who wrong us are at absolute heart of the Christian message.
And if you don’t believe me, believe Jesus.”