Monday, February 18, 2019

Hostility into Love

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” Seriously? Well, let me just share a little paradox that I’ve discovered. To love our enemies does not mean that we suddenly become their friends. If it is our enemies we are to love, they must remain enemies. Unless you have enemies, you cannot love them. And if you have no enemies, I wonder if you have any friends. Make sense? Perhaps, it’s much easier to stick to our Lord’s raw teaching – “love your enemies.”

To understand what our Lord is saying, we need to clarify two words, ‘love’ and ‘enemies’. Who are our enemies? Now, the question may seem ludicrous but it is important to state the obvious. Most people live in denial and because they do so, they end up either never resolving their issues with their enemies or never attempting even to love them. So, yes, we do need to know and recognise our enemies in order to love them. Our enemies can either be the people that we are hostile towards or the people who are hostile to us. They are persons whom we dislike, whom we even hate or despise. Or they may be the ones who dislike us, hate us or despise us. These are our enemies. Our first reaction would be to repay them in kind – if they are hostile to us, then we are entitled to be hostile to them too. But 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.  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 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. No wonder, our Lord provides several concrete examples of how one can love one’s enemies, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” There should be no retaliation at all against those who cause us injury. Rather, the Christian choice is to take a different path of forsaking vengeance and embracing holiness and compassion. The heart of the message is summarised at the end of today’s gospel, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” Our Lord invites us to ascend from the limited human generosity of man (which returns love to someone who has given love) to the absolute generosity of God, which showers love on those who currently hate Him and despise Him.

What sounds preposterous to man actually points to the audacity of God. Jesus Himself is God’s gift to all His enemies, a gift of incalculable love that indeed now causes everyone endowed with it to be “consecrated to God.” This helps us make sense of various illustrations which He uses, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving up what little we have even when it is not required of us. Yes, it was the Lord who turned the other cheek when He was slapped by His interrogators. He allowed Himself to be stripped naked, so that by His death and resurrection, He could now clothe us in Himself, in the glory of being children of God. Rather than paying back with evil, He offered the greatest blessings upon all of us, including His persecutors and executioners. The Lord went the extra mile. He went the first mile. In obedience to the Father, He clothed Himself in human flesh and walked among us. But He did not stop there, He went the second mile, all the way to the cross to bear our sins and by the power of His death and resurrection, He gave us the opportunity and the grace to walk the extra mile for His glory.

Yes, our Lord not only preached but showed us, in His life, death and resurrection, the meaning of loving one’s enemies. The point is that Christ does not command us to have an emotion or a feeling towards a person. We are not being asked to love our enemies with the love of affection, to be in love with them or to be fond of them. He did 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, our will to intend the good of others, even though we have little affection for them. In many ways, the enemies whom we are called to love would remain our enemies as long as we have no control over their feelings toward us or our feelings toward them. In a way, our enemies actually do us a favour. They provide us an opportunity, a real challenge to truly love, a love that goes beyond human affections and feelings. 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 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. The commandment to love our enemies goes deep into our hearts. But loving our enemies would always be hard. Even humanly impossible. In fact, the second reading reminds us that the true standard for Christian living lies not with the first man, Adam. Human standards, no matter how high they may reach, will always be limited and fall short of perfection. No, the standard presented to us is the one given by Christ Himself, the “man from heaven”, who possesses the “life giving spirit.” St Paul, therefore, tells us, “we, who have been modelled on the earthly man will be modelled on the heavenly man.” And this is what the heavenly man, the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ says to us, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” 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. That is why prayer must always be at the heart of this very act of loving our enemies.

A Christian who faithfully lives up to the high calling of perfection, must submit to the fate of being called a fool, an idealist, and a fanatic; to have his words perverted and his actions misrepresented. But this is his edge – this is what makes the Christian, salt of the earth and light of the world. This is also what makes his life witness so paradoxically attractive to every soul thirsting for greater spiritual depth in a world that can only offer shallow lies. In all this we remember the world does not set the standards for us. In matters of spirituality, mediocrity is never an option. Only the highest standards of excellence is demanded. We follow only one standard – “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” Thus the “acid test” for Christians would not be found in how well we treat our friends or how well we repay those who have been good to us, but is to be found in this simple and yet tremendously challenging act. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.”

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