Sunday, February 18, 2007

"Love your enemies"

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 18, 2007:

“Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.” As children we learn the Golden Rule as we heard today in our Gospel: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” But as we grow older, we realize that the world operates according to a slightly different version of that rule; one that is more like: Do to others before they can do to you! Our world gives us messages like: Don’t give an inch! Hit ‘em where it hurts! To the victor go the spoils. Many people become convinced that the only way to get ahead is to get there first, and the only way to survive is to assume a defensive stance. And, unfortunately, in many cases in our world, this is all too true.

St. Paul in our second reading from First Corinthians, gives us a contrast between Adam, who was formed from the earth, with Jesus Christ, who came from heaven. Adam was “a living being”; Jesus Christ is a “life-giving spirit.” As always, St. Paul’s concern is about what genuine Christian behavior looks like. He argues that, though through nature we were born in the image of the first man, Adam, by baptism we bear the image of the second man, Jesus. In other words, while we may be tempted to live according to the world’s version of the Rule – perhaps especially in the violent times we live in – we are still called to live the Gospel’s version.

Now, it is hard enough to follow this Golden Rule when we are in charge of the situation, but what are we expected to do when we are in vulnerable circumstances? In our first reading, David had been a threat to King Saul’s reign, so Saul gathered a vast army and set out to kill David. But, when David was triumphant and had the opportunity to strike the king and save himself, he instead acknowledged that Saul was God’s chosen king, and therefore he spared his life – a striking example of respect and forgiveness even in the face of danger and vulnerability. Now, I ask you, what would the rules of the world today, the rules of combat today, have dictated that David should do?

In our Gospel passage, Jesus gives even more detail of what it means for a Christian to follow the Golden Rule. Not only should we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, but even more, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you…Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus reminds us that as Christians, we don’t have an option to follow the Rule of Vengeance that the world lives by. Now, as believers and followers of Jesus Christ, we must be different than the rest of the world. What our Scripture gives us today, is not a general code of conduct for all people in the world, but a standard of behavior for those who follow Jesus and listen to his teachings. If Christianity is to ever change our world; if we are ever to achieve the peace of the Kingdom that God promises us; it won’t be by spreading doctrine on paper, but it must be and can only be accomplished by the noticeably different moral behavior of Christians. In our world today, do the believers of Jesus Christ stand out in stark contrast as recognizably different than the rest of the world; or as the hymn reminds us, “They will know that we are Christians by our love.” Or, rather are we indistinguishable from the rest of the world?

The Golden Rule does not require that we allow others to take advantage of us; but rather it calls us to rise above the pettiness of the world; to never be satisfied with the sad state of the world; to be constantly striving with all that we are for all that God promises. And so, the one who was struck on the cheek should rise above the attack or insult and to show who really prevailed in the situation. The one who lost the cloak was directed to act in a like manner and to relinquish even the tunic. Both individuals refused to be victims or to retaliate. By their actions they said: I can outdo your violence toward me with my willingness to give freely much more than you sought to take from me. Thus they stand with David in his attitude toward Saul. They overcome evil with a double dose good. An evil response only creates even more evil. The insight and brilliance of Jesus is to recognize that the only real, lasting, long term antidote to the violence and evil in our world is the love and forgiveness of God – as expressed by those who believe in Him.

Is it possible to forgive our enemies in a world torn by war, discrimination, economic disparity and exploitation of the vulnerable? We are not expected to overlook these evils, but to always remember that “we bear the image of the heavenly one,” and so we are called to forgive and not retaliate. We are called to be merciful, and not vengeful. As I like to say, there are no asterisks in the Bible. After Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” There isn’t an asterisk that says, “See below: Unless your enemy is really, really mean.” Our Lord and Savior says simple, “Love, and bless and pray.” This is a type of Christian heroism that does not merely respond to evil in the world, but rather transforms it – through Christ – into goodness and holiness, but it takes real courage to practice it. This is the only way that the Kingdom of God will ever reach its fulfillment; if it begins in the converted hearts of believers.

A monk was praying under a tree beside a river. As he prayed the tide was coming and the river was rising. Then he noticed a scorpion at the foot of the tree struggling for dear life as the surging waves tried to drown it. The monk stretched out his hand to pull the scorpion to safety but each time his hand came near, the scorpion tried to sting him. A passerby saw what was going on and said to the monk: “What are you doing? Don't you know that it is in the nature of a scorpion to sting?” “Yes,” replied the monk, “And it is my nature to save. Must I change my nature because the scorpion refuses to change its nature?” Jesus, today, challenges us to remain true to our nature of goodness, holiness, forgiveness and mercy; to love even when those around us remain adamant in their nature to hate.

We must be people who forgive more easily and offer love in the face of hatred. This is not optional. We must be loving and forgiving people in our family life; in our interpersonal relationships; and in our world. If there is in our lives a scorpion of hate that delights in stinging us, let us, like the monk, remain faithful to our commitment to save and to love. To those who seek power as the world seeks it, Jesus says to us, His followers, “It cannot be so with you.” Instead He offers us, who have been baptized into His image, another way, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you...Do to others as you would have them do to you”

May God give you and give the world, peace.

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