SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
1 Sam 26:2; 7-9, 12f., 22f. 1 Cor 15: 45-49 Lk 6:27-38, Noble Forgiveness of Others,
Imitating God in His Mercy; Nobility of Character; Going beyond the Golden Rule; Loving Enemies. Suppose you found out from incontrovertible evidence that your next door neighbor was telling lies about you – not to only one or two people, but to many; not once, but often; not only in the past, but today; and not in little items, but in matters so important that they affect your livelihood. In fact, you’ve sadly come to realize that your neighbor is an enemy.
David, along with his nephew Abishai, had the opportunity to turn the tables when they discovered Saul asleep. Abishai, a volatile youth, wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to thrust his spear into the sleeping Saul. After all, in those days one always killed one’s enemies if one had the chance. But because of David’s respect for the sacred aspect of kingship (v. 9), he chose the daring act of removing the king’s spare and water jug from their place at Saul’s head (v. 12). To taunt Saul’s army with the knowledge that he had pierced their defences, David invited Saul’s general to come and pick them up. David’s last sentence, that although the Lord had put Saul in his power he wouldn’t harm him, contains the link of this reading with today’s Gospel.
Jesus extended the love commandment from being not only toward God’s anointed, or even only toward one’s countrymen, but to the whole world, even to one’s enemy and persecutor. Of all the words he could have used for love of our enemy, the word he used doesn’t mean the love of a man for a maid, or the love we have for our friends. His word means an active feeling of benevolence for another person, wanting the highest good for that person – and even a going out to that person. As a poet (Edwin Markham) wrote of an He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in!
In spite of our founder’s admonition to love our enemies, Christianity often fell victim to the temper of its time and circumstance. Because it’s so difficult to overcome difference with kindness, even the Church chose instead (for purity of faith) for centuries to ostracize, excommunicate, imprison, torture, and execute. Opposed with benevolence, “often, errors vanish as quickly as they rise, like fog before the sun” (Pope John XXIII). Jesus doesn’t expect us to do the impossible and feel the same for our enemy as we would for the dearest objects of our love. We speak of falling in love with our dear ones – a
feeling of the heart such as on Valentine’s day. For our enemies we must use our willpower and deliberateness. Jesus’ life gives the supreme example of it.
Among enemies Jesus knowingly includes those who curse you (v. 28), people like the hypothetical neighbor whose bad will we describe at the beginning. Jesus’ kind of love for them means that, if anyone strikes you on one cheek (v. 29) – verbally or physically – you’re to turn the other. If that seems difficult, think about it. The wise person finds enemies more useful than the fool does friends. Many owe their greatness to their enemies. The flattery of friends can be more hostile than hatred, for hatred corrects the faults flattery had Jesus enunciates the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you”
(v.31). This isn’t a quid pro quo ethic, whereby one who receives good is obliged to reciprocate. And, rather than being reactive, whereby we do good for people who have previously done good for us, it’s pro-active, whereby we do good for people who have not done good for us, and from whom we don’t expect good in return. Pro-active love is fundamental to Christian living.
Not everyone is happy with that. A mother happened to overhear a group of little girls concocting a scheme of revenge against another little girl who had apparently done something mean. She took the children aside and said, “It seems to me you’re doing her what you don’t want her to do to you. I don’t think this is the Golden Rule, is it?” “Well,” replied one little girl, “The Golden Rule is all right for Sunday, but for every other day, I‘d rather have an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth!”
Some may be surprised to learn that the Golden Rule is a heart-piece of other religions, too. Buddhism says, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5, 18). Confucius, in Chinese philosopher, about 500 years before Christ said, “Do not unto others what you would not have them do into you” (Analects 15, 23). Hinduism says, “do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you” (Mahabharata 5, 1517). Taoism says, “Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss” (Tai Shang Kan Ying P’ien). Islam says, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself” (Sunnah). The Jewish Talmud says, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man” (Shabbat 32id).
It’s also in Isocrates, the Greek orator, about 400 years before Christ; in the early Stoic philosophers of Greece and Rome, beginning about 300 years before Christ; in the Book of Tobit (4:15), about 200 years before Christ; in Hillel, one of the great Jewish rabbis, who was born shortly before Christ; and Philo, the Jewish thinker from Alexandria who lived roughly the same time as Jesus. But Jesus is unique in teaching that “others” includes everyone created by God, including enemies. Here (vv.32-34), Jesus lists common ways that people think is sensible conduct toward our neighbor – loving those who love you, doing good to those who good to you, leading money to those from whom you expect to be repaid.
But Jesus says that’s not enough. In each case he concludes by asking, “what credit is that to you?” As a poet (Jane Merchant) wrote:
If I forgive an injury
Because resenting would poison me –
I may feel noble, I may feel splendid,
But it isn’t exactly what Christ intended.
Jesus’ standard of comparison is God. His followers must become children of the Most High (v. 35), manifesting the life of God among humankind. Only if we love our enemies and expect nothing back will we be acting like God.
When we’ve purified ourselves, by the grace of God, to the point at which we can truly love our enemies, a beautiful thing happens. It’s as if the boundaries of the soul become so clean as to be transparent, and a unique light then shines forth from the individual. We’re then acting like God. And, as God’s conduct shows, there’s nothing inconsistent between the
Golden Rule and the Iron Rule, which – an aspect of “tough love” – is never to do for others what they can do for themselves. Difficult? Indeed it is. That’s why Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” And that’s why our liturgy reminds us of today’s portion of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul, simultaneously the rabbi and the Christian preacher, in good rabbinic style presents as the summary of our life that it consists of choosing between two Adams. Just as the first Adam is the source of natural life, so the Risen Christ, “the heavenly man”, “the last Adam” (v. 45), is the source – and also the model – of spiritual life. Most of us identify with both figures battling for supremacy within our own personalities. If we adhere solely to the first Adam within us, we can’t aspire to the Christian life. If we nurse grudges, we will be consumed by them. If we hold on to our hatreds, they will destroy us.
Jesus isn’t just alive, like the first Adam, but life – giving, a source of life for others. He teaches values that aren’t earthbound – values, indeed, that can’t even be understood when seen only in the context of this life. It’s only through sharing in the risen, glorified life of Christ, the prime image of God, that we’re renewed according to the image of the Creator.
Paul exhorts us to grow into the image of the heavenly person by transforming ourselves. Paul’s advice follows the example of David in being influenced by heavenly considerations over such natural responses as the destruction of a threatening mortal enemy. Jesus advises difficult practices like turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, and nobly forgiving others, when the natural response might demand vengeance and self – protection.
Let’s think about how we may follow this difficult advice in our lives.