Feb 18, 2011

7th Sunday: Love as an act of the will

Pope John Paul II forgives Mehmet Ali Agca, his attempted assassin
"But I say to you, love your enemies . . ."
Year A

Lv 19: 1-2, 17-18
1 Cor 3: 16-23
Mt 5: 38-48

The entertaining Broadway play, Fiddler on the Roof, stands among the most popular in American theatrical history. The two main characters are a poor, Jewish married couple, Tevye and Golde, whose daughter has sought her father’s permission to marry a non-Jewish man. The Father is deeply upset at his daughter’s choice: “Tradition!,” he sings.

In a touching and humorous scene, Tevye questions his wife: “Golde, do you love me?” Golde is shocked by this question. “Do I love you?” she queries. As Tevye awaits her answer, she ticks off all that she has done: “I’ve washed your clothes; cooked your meals, cleaned the house, given you children, milked your cow . . . for twenty five years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him . . . if that’s not love what is?”

Tevye responds, “Then you love me!” and Golde affectionately chimes back, “I suppose I do.” Finally, Tevye with a smile on his face agrees, “And I suppose I love you, too.”

While such a tender scene brings a smile to our face and the usual warm feelings of appreciation, it portrays a popular sentiment about the meaning of love: that we show our love through the actions we do for another. In marriage it’s all the practical, mundane everyday tasks of life that symbolize a shared respect for one’s spouse. In the priesthood, it is the sacrifice of the daily tasks and responsibilities that keep the parish going, the prayer offered by the priest for his people. Even in the case of Tevye and Golde, an arranged marriage, they learned to love each other. Maybe that begins a discussion on this Sunday’s readings. That love is a choice we make. It is an act of the will.

While there is truth to that of course, our readings today challenge us to go beyond the mere pragmatic signs of love. To go farther than just choosing to love those who we presume will return the same. While this type of love should be found in marriage we hear today that true love goes beyond the obvious to the unexpected, to the heroic in fact. Put simply we are to love as Christ loves which is as God loves us. Such an act of the will is beyond marriage only.

How hard is it to respect people that you detest? Well, it can be very hard and it does not come naturally. We don’t instinctively return love in the face of hate, harm, violence, rejection, criticism, or whatever form of “enemies” may come our way. We feel threatened. We put up our guard, become defensive, seek retribution, hold a grudge, judge more harshly than we have been judged, conspire to defame the character of another, or gossip about them before we ever consider forgiveness – which may be never or at best long in coming. Yet, Jesus calls us to a higher and more un-natural kind of love – to a more God-like sort of love for which Jesus himself is the prime example.

We hear Jesus call us to this level of high moral choice: “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you . . . so be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5: 44, 48). And our first reading implies a similar connection between love and holiness: “Be holy, for I the Lord, your God, am holy. You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister . . . take no revenge and cherish no grudge . . .”

Yet, we are limited by our own language at times. We say we “love” many things – people, food, cars, places, money, beautiful women and handsome men, palatial homes, etc. We tend to blur the lines between like and love many times. If we say we like someone, what we mean is that we are comfortable with, enjoy the company of, find a common bond with, or share the same interests with, someone we “like.” So to like someone is based in my feelings for them.

Today’s passage presents to us a choice beyond mere feelings. While love for another does involve our emotions, in the case of our enemies, it is an act of the will, a choice I make for another. When confronted with harm, with those who I feel have it out for me, I have a choice of how to respond. Jesus offers us a choice that will reveal our own standard of faith and our own character – our integrity as a follower of Christ.

In the end, am I willing to forgive? Sometimes, it may involve keeping my distance from another and at the same time wishing no harm come upon them. I can pray for those who have done wrong to me. I may by my Christ-like example of heroic love bring someone to conversion. They may think twice about inflicting harm upon me or another person and reconsider their behavior. Even if they do not, I have a conscience clear of revenge and I know that my prayer for them is not wasted.

Our Eucharist has come to us through the example of Jesus who forgave all those who did him harm: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23: 34). Though it may feel as a great challenge, an almost unsustainable level of moral choice, at least we can try. We are marked with the cross at our baptism and we must carry that sign to others around us. Who knows how many hard hearts may be softened by our example of heroic love?