The Gospel reading in today’s 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time continues the Sermon on the Mount from last week. In the gospel today we come to the most difficult instruction that Jesus ever uttered: “Love your enemies.”
In Proverbs 24:17 we’re told not to gloat when our enemy falls. In Proverbs 25:21 we’re told to feed our enemy when he’s hungry. But the blatant instruction to love our enemies came from Jesus in His sermon on the mount.
Much has been said, written and commented on this difficult words of Jesus. I would just like to highlight three things.
First, these words of Jesus is, indeed, radical. It represents a revolutionary new teaching from Jesus.
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
Ulrich Luz says that “Love thy enemies” is what separates Christianity from all earlier religions. Ron Rolheiser said that to love one’s enemy is the acid-test of who’s a Christian and who isn’t. In a (2001) issue of America magazine, John Donahue makes this comment:
“Virtually no Christian group has adopted Jesus’ teaching on love of enemy as the critical test of orthodoxy. Yet Jesus issues four ringing commands: love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you.”
Second, we all cringe at these words of Jesus. It is unnatural, counter-intuitive and illogical. Therefore, we all struggle to follow Jesus’ words. On the other hand, Jesus’ words seemed to be hitting the core of the reality of many conflicts that continue to plague our world. We continue to live in times where is deep division and polarization between countries and religions, between individuals and groups, between political ideologies from both the left and the right, each party trying to impose on others their own view of what is right or wrong.
Third, it is very important that we don’t take Jesus’ words out of context. Many of the confusion and misconceptions that arose out of these text were the result of interpreting Jesus’ words literally without any consideration of the socio-cultural context upon which Jesus uttered these words.
Finally, Jesus’ words are based on his final command to “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus challenges us to go beyond our average and expected attitudes and behaviors as Christians.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
To “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” is also expressed in the first reading today from the book of Leviticus.
“Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.
“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”
We should not, however, take the word perfect out of context. When Jesus said that we need to “be perfect” he is not speaking of some kind of impossible flawlessness. The word perfect in the original Greek means complete. It comes from a primary word meaning to set out for a definite point or goal. Jesus is saying for us to make it our goal to love like our Heavenly Father loves.
The love of our Heavenly Father evokes completeness and inclusiveness demonstrated in the universality of the gifts of sunshine and rain. The “heavenly Father,” gives Life (“sun rise” and “rain”) to “the just and the unjust” alike. It is precisely that quality of God’s universal love that we are to imitate.