Today’s gospel (Matthew 5.43-48) from the Sermon on the Mount is hard to hear and seemingly impossible to do. Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you and…be perfect!!? Lent has just begun and while we are trying to honestly evaluate our relationship with God and others, it would be easy to be discouraged by these 6 short verses. Is this Jesus’ intention?
I think there are a couple of hidden keys which may unlock the possibility of Jesus’ teaching for us. First, we need to acknowledge that love like this is divine, not human. Only God has the capacity to love all people, to see their essential goodness beneath the ugly layers of sin. Rather than seeking vengeance, he waits patiently for the seeds of his love to take root in our mostly-concrete hearts. Secondly, we desperately need the ongoing encouragement and example of others to believe it’s possible.
One of my long-time favourite movies, The Princess Bride, shows the Spaniard Inigo, devoting his whole life to avenging the murder of his father by the Six-Fingered Man. It is easy to identify with his valiant quest. Humour masks the truth that his heart is hardened by hatred that becomes despair which is dulled only by drunkenness. Does Inigo live in peace after he kills the Six- Fingered Man? The story doesn’t tell us, but it is highly unlikely since throughout history, and if we are honest, in our own lives, the cycle of hatred and violence continues and even escalates without God’s saving intervention in Jesus, the indwelling of the Spirit and the witness of other Christians.
Jesus doesn’t just tell us to love our enemies, he invites us to follow him by walking the talk. Most compellingly on the cross, Jesus forgives and prays for his enemies. After Pentecost, the power to love as Jesus does is given to the entire Christian community. We hear of the first martyr Stephen praying, as he is stoned to death, that the sin of his enemies might not be held against them. In fact, Christianity has many martyrs who died forgiving their enemies.
But you might think as I did, that the examples in Scripture and throughout the history of the Church are pretty extreme. Unlike the life-threatening persecutions of Christians today in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, I am not on the verge of being crucified, stoned, burned at the stake, beheaded or even imprisoned. Nevertheless, I am ashamed to admit that I could make a fairly long list of people I avoid or find impossible to love. How can I better live with the gentle spirit of divine love in my ordinary life?
There are witnesses galore to the ways in which it is possible to enter into this divine love. For me, one of them has been Joyce Meyer, an American evangelist whose compelling testimony is available on Youtube. She was sexually abused by her father for many years but she did not let hatred and anger about what happened to her take over her life. Her books and devotionals share her experience of growing awareness and conversion to letting God’s love into her heart, relationships and ministry. There are others whose stories can help us take steps in the right direction if we only seek them out. Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr and Parker J. Palmer are other contemporary teachers whose experience and insights have been helpful to me.
Moses tells the people that to be in relationship with God they have to live wholeheartedly by the laws and “hearken to God’s voice”. As we try to keep God’s law more faithfully, let us make space in our noisy and busy lives to let perfection seep into our hearts by listening to his voice- in Scripture, in Christian witnesses and in the stillness of our own hearts. With his grace and the inspiring examples of our brothers and sisters we can begin anew to love the ones we dislike the most.
Lord Jesus Christ,
You showed us how to love, not when it was easy but when it was hard,
Even on the cross You forgave those who had crucified You,
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”,
let Your words be branded on our hearts, so that we may forgive others.