Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Love means going the extra mile

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Once again, Jesus takes a common mentality of the Jews and their traditional teaching to a whole new level of discipleship. If faith is a journey, Jesus does not demand that His followers cross the finish line – He calls for a victory lap. When He calls His followers to emulate His example, He does not preface it with a statement like “try your best.” The Lord does not settle for mediocrity. He demands perfection. It is precisely here that we see four examples of that standard of perfection. Jesus demands that His followers go the extra mile and not just settle for the base line.

Primitive communities sometimes lived in virtual states of escalating retaliation, wherein the settling of each score, led to yet another response from one’s adversary or his family and friends. The earliest recorded attempt to limit retaliation to that which is “just” was established under Hammurabi. In Latin, it is called “Lex Talionis” — the law of “this for that” otherwise known as “tit for tat” or “quid pro quo.” Lex Talionis specified the maximum punishment allowable. It was, in fact, intended to be a merciful law. For example, you can’t demand a life as compensation for the loss of an eye. Thus, an “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”

But Jesus goes one step farther when He states that there should be no retaliation at all. We have no right to exact justice on those who offend us. It is left to God alone, to judge or condemn. Justice belongs to God. In Deuteronomy, the Lord says “It is mine to avenge! I will repay!” Christ made it very clear that individual believers who are insulted for His Kingdom must bear it. In the beatitudes, those who are insulted and persecuted for the sake of righteousness and for Christ’s sake is rewarded with a blessing. There is no need for us to win every argument, to vindicate ourselves when we are wrongly accused, or to have the final word. God will have it! God will be our judge and it is He who will have the final word on the Last Day.

To further emphasise the point, Jesus communicates that there are always two ways to do something: 1) Doing the bare minimum, or 2) Doing what you are asked to do, and graciously and cheerfully do even more. The historical background to the situation of being asked to go a mile is the Roman law that required an individual from a conquered country to carry a load or pack up to one mile on foot if asked by a Roman. It was a compulsory service. It was not popular; it was hated; it was done grudgingly. The scribes and the Pharisees particularly despised these laws being used by the ruling powers. Remember Simon of Cyrene?  Here, however, the Lord tells us to go the extra mile.

Yes, the Lord Jesus turned the other cheek when He was slapped. He allowed Himself to be stripped naked, so that by His death and resurrection, He could now clothe us in His glory. Rather than paying back with evil, He offered mercy to all of us, including His persecutors and executioners. The Lord Jesus certainly went the extra mile!  He did what was required of Him. He left heaven, clothed Himself in human flesh and walked among men. He did not stop there, He went the second mile, all the way to the cross to bear our sins, so that we can walk the extra mile for His glory.

We finally come to the last saying of Jesus, perhaps the most challenging of all.  Again, Jesus turns things on their head with a saying which many people would find quite unrealistic, if not downright stupid. He actually tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. How can we be asked to do such a thing? Preposterous to say the least! To understand what Jesus is saying we need to clarify two words, ‘love’ and ‘enemies’. Who are our enemies? They are persons whom we truly dislike, and whom we even despise. Or they may be the ones who dislike us, hate us or despise us even if we may not share the same degree of hostility which they have against us. These are our enemies.  Yet these are the ones whom we are called to love.

What does ‘love’ mean here? The word that the gospel uses is a verb from the noun agape (‘agaph). Agape is a unilateral way of loving by which, irrespective of the actions or attitudes of another person, I desire their well-being. It is the love which God extends to every one of His creatures, irrespective of how they respond to Him. According to Pope Emeritus Benedict, in Caritas in Veritate, “To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it.” Therefore, it is crucial to understand that love is not simply a feeling but is preeminently an act of the will. In essence, to love is to have the other person’s total welfare at heart: it is to will them good in all things, and evil in none. The point is that Christ does not command us to LIKE our enemies. He cannot. Love of this sort cannot be commanded. But, He does command us to exercise our freedom to intend the good of others, even though we have little affection for them.

Often, real love doesn’t feel good at all. Sometimes, real love doesn’t seem rewarding. Frequently, real love wounds us more than soothes our hurts and injuries. The epitome of this kind of love is found on the Cross, when Jesus asked the Father to forgive His enemies for their unwitting crime of deicide.

There is no denying, that for many of us, of all the teachings of Jesus, the mandate to love our enemies is the one that is most far reaching and difficult to live.  Jesus gives us a commandment, not a suggestion. Love for our enemies is not an ideal but rather a way of life. We cannot consider ourselves authentic disciples of Jesus unless we truly love our enemies. But loving our enemies would always be hard. Even humanly impossible. That is why prayer must always be at the heart of this very act of loving our enemies. For man it may be impossible but for God, nothing is impossible. The grace of God makes possible even this most impossible of human acts. Henri Nouwen once wrote: “There is probably no prayer as powerful as the prayer for our enemies.  But it is also the most difficult prayer since it is most contrary to our impulses.  This explains why some Saints consider prayer for our enemies the main criterion of holiness”

Yes, pray for your enemies. Not only for their conversion of heart so that they would make life easier for you. But pray for their well-being, for their happiness, for their salvation, even when there is no apparent change of behaviour.

Jesus, therefore sets apart the love of one’s enemies as the “acid test” for Christians. Yes, love your enemies. Do not seek retaliation. Turn the other cheek and give even when it isn’t asked of you. Walk the extra mile with your enemy whom you may eventually discover to be a friend.  Thus we must be constantly praying for the courage, the patience and the grace to do all these things and even more, as we remember the words of St Teresa of Kolkata, “To be able to love one another, we must pray much, for prayer gives a clean heart and a clean heart can see God in our neighbour. If now we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten how to see God in one another.”

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