Readings: 1 Kgs 17:1-6; Ps 121; Mt 5:1-12
When I was a boy in New York, the kids on our street would play stickball every summer evening. Now there was one neighbor, Mrs. Counts, whose yard happened to be right field. It was surrounded by a hedge, and the only break in the hedge was the gate that opened onto her front walk.
To us Mrs. Counts was more than a neighbor; she was the enemy. We neither liked nor loved her. She was a grumpy old woman, and we were nasty little brats.
Trivial events? Maybe. But through these events we all demonstrated a remarkable lack of charity. Of course, I’m pretty sure we children never made a connection between our judgment of Mrs. Counts and the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed it would be decades before I made that connection, this time in a Cape Cod neighborhood.
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, when suddenly I thought, Heavens! I’ve become Mrs. Counts. And so I waved at them. They waved back, 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, by the Beatitudes, and every so often we experience the tension arising from our imperfect lives. The world tells us to ignore it, to fight anger with anger, violence with violence, evil with evil. But deep down we know that doing so is just a mask to cover our selfishness, to hide our self-righteousness. We want to win our battles, to shine; whereas Jesus instructs us to be meek, to be humble.
The world screams for revenge, but Jesus tells us to forget about man’s justice. Be merciful. Hunger and thirst for righteousness, for God’s justice, for holiness.
He tells us to love our neighbor, but then goes on to tell us to love our enemies too. Love your neighbor and love your enemy…who’s left? G. K. Chesterton, one of my heroes, wrote: "We are commanded to love our neighbors and our enemies; they are generally the same people." I, of course, thought of Mrs. Counts.
And that dual love of neighbor and enemy can be a bit of a challenge. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did as He spread His arms wide on the Cross and forgave.
Did evil triumph that day when the Son of God was crucified? No, mercy triumphed, and gave us a glimpse of God’s holiness [Jas 2:13].
"Take up your cross," Jesus tells us, "and follow me" [Mt 16:24]
My holiness is loving. It admits no hatred, although it might occasionally reprove [Mt 18:15].
I don’t seek revenge, and neither should you [Eph 4:31-32].
I forgive, and so should you...70 times 7 times [Mt 18:22].
"So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Mt 5:48].
But, Father, how can we be perfect? Perfection is what You are; imperfection is what we are.
God 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; to be peacemakers…for these are all attainable.
Jesus pleads with us: Come to me and I will give you an abundance of grace. I will help you on this remarkable journey of conversion [2 Cor 9:8]. Jesus became one of us, and in doing so shows us what is possible in our own lives.
Let’s use this moment today to tell the Father that we have indeed forgiven all those neighborly enemies who have offended us.
I forgave grumpy Mrs. Counts years ago. I pray only that she forgave me.