Readings: Lev 19:1-2, 17-18; Ps 103; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48
Interesting readings, aren’t they? In our first reading from Leviticus, Mosaic Law teaches us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Lev 19:18]. And then in our Gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus, in the midst of His Sermon on the Mount, tells us “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” [Mt 5:44].
Love your neighbor and love your enemy...Gosh, who’s left? Actually, the great G. K. Chesterton once wrote: "We are commanded to love our neighbors and our enemies; they are generally the same people." There’s a lot of truth in that, and loving those we’re with every day can be a bit of a challenge.
As a Christian it’s easy for me to say, “Yes, I love that Jihadist terrorist who’s been led by others, or by a hateful ideology, to do such horrible things over there in Afghanistan, or Syria, or Libya, or even in New York City...” And it’s pretty easy to express Christian love for the murderer on death row. After all, I really don’t really know any of these people, do I? That makes them a lot easier to love.
But when you know someone well, someone who isn’t all that nice, love doesn’t come quite so easy, does it? It’s so much easier to despise someone up close and personal, someone who has treated you abominably, one of those neighbors or family members we so often turn into enemies.
When I was just a boy in suburban New York, we neighborhood kids would often play stick-ball and other games in our street. Now there was one neighbor, Mrs. Counts, whose yard was, well, sort of right field. It was surrounded by a hedge, and the only break in the hedge was the gate that led to her front walk.
Now Mrs. Counts was very old, probably sixty. And whenever a ball would go over that hedge, we’d open the gate and run into her yard to retrieve it. The gate squeaked, a noise that always brought her to the front door, from which she screamed at us for daring to hit a ball onto her lawn. We, of course, retaliated as only children can, by taunting her, calling her names. It was not a good relationship.
To the children of the neighborhood, Mrs. Counts was more than a neighbor; she was the enemy. We neither liked nor loved her. Mrs. Counts was a grumpy old woman, and we were equally grumpy little brats.
Trivial events you may argue, and yet it was through these trivial events that we all demonstrated a remarkable lack of charity. Of course, it’s unlikely that we children ever made a connection between our judgment of Mrs. Counts and the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed it would be decades, in a different neighborhood, this one on Cape Cod, before I made that connection.
One summer afternoon a soccer ball flew over the fence into our yard and rolled onto a patch of Lilies of the Valley. In an instant our neighbor’s two grandsons jumped the fence and ran through the flowers, trampling as they went, to retrieve the ball. I stood there in the yard, watching them, and was about to let them have it with both barrels of indignation, when suddenly I thought, Heavens! I’ve become Mrs. Counts! And so I waved at the two boys. They said, “Hi!”, grabbed their ball, jumped the fence, and were gone.
Yes, every so often, I do what is right in God’s eyes. Every so often I am slapped on one cheek and actually turn the other. You see, brothers and sisters, we’re all called by Jesus, by the Gospel, and every so often we experience the tension arising from our imperfect lives.
The world, of course, tells us to ignore that tension, to fight anger with anger, violence with violence, evil with evil. But deep down we know it’s just a mask to cover our selfishness, to hide our self-righteousness. We want to stand out in our battles with evil, to win, to shine; whereas Jesus instructs us, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
Forget about man's justice, He tells us. Don't worry about just compensation. We’re instead called to overwhelm the wrongdoer with incredible generosity. Love your enemies!
Is that even possible? Well, yes, it is. For that’s exactly what Jesus did as He spread His arms wide on the Cross. He offered no resistance and seemed to allow evil to triumph.
He begged the Father to forgive those who would kill Him, and by doing so set an example that St. Stephen and countless others would follow. This remarkable act, this self-sacrificial act of redemption gives us a glimpse into God's holiness.
Take up your cross, God tells us, Do as I do.
My holiness is loving. It admits no hatred, although it might occasionally reprove.
I don’t seek revenge, and neither should you.
I forgive, and so should you...seventy times seven times.
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect [Mt 5:48].
And we reply, in all honesty, "How can we be perfect, Lord? Perfection is what You are, imperfection is what we are."
He knows that. The distance between us and God is infinite. He simply wants us to follow the Son’s example, for His perfection is our model. It’s not the perfection of God’s infinite power and wisdom, the unapproachable divine perfection that we seek. No, such perfection is always beyond us.
But still the command is there: Be perfect!
It’s the perfection of the Beatitudes to which we are called: to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to seek meekness and purity of heart, to be merciful…for these are all attainable. Come to me, he pleads, and I will give you an abundance of grace. I will help you on this remarkable journey of conversion.
That command – "…be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” – is the command of the Son, and so the Son shows us the way. He became one of us, and in doing so shows us what is possible in our own lives.
Yes, we will falter. We will each fall prey to our own brand of sinfulness. But forgiveness is only a moment away, as near as the sacramental grace we receive in reconciliation, as near as our own repentance. And that’s what He asks of us.
Jesus began His public ministry with the words, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” [Mk 1:15] – for with God repentance always brings forgiveness. Recall the words of today’s responsorial psalm…
“He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities…as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” [Ps 103:10, 12].
Yes, brothers and sisters, God forgives, but we must forgive in turn.
In a few moments, as we prepare to receive the Real Presence of Our Lord in Holy Communion, we will join together with Fr. King and recite the Our Father. As we pray those words given to us by the Son, we make that bargain with the Father: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" [Mt 6:12].
Let’s use this moment today to tell the Father that we have indeed forgiven all those neighbors, all those enemies, and all those neighborly enemies who have offended us.
I forgave grumpy Mrs. Counts years ago. I pray only that she forgave me.