Readings: Dt 26:16-19; Ps 119; Mt 5:43-48
"Love your enemies..." [Mt 5:44] That's a hard teaching, isn't it?
Years ago, during the conflict in Vietnam, I was a young Navy pilot. I recall one evening, out at sea on an aircraft carrier, opening my Bible to Matthew's Gospel and re-reading the Sermon on the Mount.
|POW in North Vietnam|
At the time, our enemy, of course, were the Communists of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. As my POW friends will gladly attest, many of them were not nice people. And as my Marine friends discovered when they liberated the city of Hue. the communists tortured and murdered upwards of 6,000 men, women, and children during their month-long occupation of that ancient city. Yes, they were an easy enemy to hate.
But having read Matthew's Gospel that very fact troubled me. And so one day I paid a visit to the ship's chaplain. He wasn't a Catholic priest, but was a young Evangelical minister, strong in his faith, and always interested in comparing notes with me about Church teaching.
That particular day I asked him how we could reconcile the command to love our enemies with this conflict in which we were engaged.
I'll always remember that conversation. I won't repeat our rather lengthy discussion on the just war doctrine. That's a subject for another time. But I will tell you what he had to say about enemies and hatred and love and forgiveness.
He began by saying that if our enemies are those we hate, we have ceased being Christians. As disciples of Jesus Christ we are to hate no one. But if our enemies are those who hate us, then we will always have enemies. Jesus, after all, had many enemies, simply because He loved everyone, especially those despised by the world, and He spoke the truth and did the Father's will even when doing so might well lead others to hate Him.
Our enemies decide how they will treat us. We decide only to love them or to hate them.
This young minister then told me that despite what we see in the movies, or encounter in poetry, or hear in all those country-western songs, love and hate are not emotions. They're decisions.
Jesus calls us to love regardless of the evil others do, and regardless of how we feel about it. And He calls us to exclude no one from our love, and that means loving all those enemies.
And, yes, these are hard words for us, aren't they? Hard indeed...until we come face to face with the Cross, and we hear His words, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do" [Lk 23:34]. It's there, on the Cross, that we encounter Divine Mercy: God's perfect love, a love that demands forgiveness.
Indeed, Jesus makes the act of forgiveness the centerpiece of His call to love.
In that same Sermon on the Mount, He tells us to forgive others without delay [Mt 5:25]. Don't focus on the hurt you've suffered, don't mull it over, just forgive. Jesus, of course, does this Himself. Even as He suffers on the Cross, He asks the Father to forgive those who have crucified Him.
Could we do the same? Can we exhibit this kind of divine forgiveness?
No, we can't - at lest not on our own. To forgive as God forgives, we need God's grace; but it's right there for us. We need only accept it. You see, Jesus wouldn't command us to do something we're unable to do, unless He offers us the grace needed to do it.
And how often are we to forgive those who harm us? Not once, not twice...no as Jesus tells Peter, "not seven times but seventy times seven" [Mt 18:22]. In other words, we must never stop forgiving.
But that's not all. Our forgiveness must also imitate that of the Father, whose forgiveness is lavish and sacrificial. It's the kind of forgiveness Jesus describes in the parable of the prodigal. The Father forgives with a shower of grace [Lk 15:20-24].
And in today's Gospel passage we are presented with the most challenging kind of forgiveness: to forgive our enemies, those who consciously and intentionally seek to harm us.
You see, brothers and sisters, without forgiveness we cannot love. Forgiveness is the only thing we can do to those we are called to love. If we refuse to forgive, we are refusing to love.
Some of you might have seen the movie "Dead Man Walking," about the execution of a rather vicious murderer.
Well, one person you won't see in the movie is a woman named Debbie Morris. She was the one victim who miraculously survived her horrific ordeal at the hands of the convicted killer, Robert Willie.
After his execution, she said something remarkable, "Justice didn't do a thing to heal me. Forgiveness did." The execution of the man who did so much to harm her brought no closure to her life. The only closure came from forgiveness.
It's easy to hate, isn't it? It's easy to scream for justice, to scream for man's justice, but doing so never brings healing. It never brings the closure the world promises. Only forgiveness can do that. Only forgiveness can release us from the bonds of sin. Only forgiveness can heal.
Did you hear that? Only forgiveness can heal!
If you've come here today for healing, take some time to offer forgiveness to those in your life who have caused you pain - whatever the pain, physical, spiritual, emotional, it doesn't matter. Let God release you from the bonds of hatred and unforgiveness.
How can you expect God to bring you healing, healing of any kind, if you won't break apart, tear apart, that which binds you to unforgiveness?
And let us not neglect those whom we have hurt, those who suffer because of what we have done. Asking for forgiveness of another can be even more difficult than giving it.
And so, as we come forward today for healing, let us consider those words of Jesus, words most of you probably pray daily:
"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" [Mt 6:12].
These are powerful words, brothers and sisters, but they're also scary words, words through which we can seemingly condemn ourselves.
We are called to live what we pray.
The world will never cease encouraging us to hate, just as it will never run out of objects for our hatred, especially today when enemies abound. And so there will always be opportunities to forgive.
If we hope to become the people Moses spoke of in our first reading, "a people sacred to the Lord" [Dt 26:19], we must live up to God's expectations for us, we who were created in His image and likeness.
He calls each of us to view this life as a pilgrimage of love, a life in which we seek out others, sinners like you and me.
And what do we do when we find them? That's the miracle of divine love. You see, in finding them, we find and see Jesus Christ within them. And then the miracle continues because through our love they will recognize Jesus within us.
Let God be the one who will judge His creations. That's not our job.
We need only love...and be healed.