Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
Our Scriptures this Sunday bring us further along the road of Jesus' moral teaching. This week the fundamental call to love one another, in particular to "love your enemies" and "to pray for those who persecute you" present a great challenge to our natural desire to get back at those who do us wrong. It is a call to non-violence of which we have seen powerful examples in history: the early Christian martyrs of our Church, Mahatma Ghandi, and in our own country Martin Luther King have been historical examples of peaceful protest, in the face of oppression and forced evil upon the innocent. Our present day peaceful marches for the right to life are a perfect example of an application of Jesus’ teaching.
While we may acquaint such events as acts of social justice, Jesus’ teaching applies to our everyday lives, marching or not. Our Lord was not so much a social activist with political ties but rather offers all of humanity a new insight on how we are to live in this world. As followers of Christ, we have a particular responsibility and opportunity to show the world what Jesus meant for all. His call to act with non-violence in the face of evil is a powerful position to take the higher road of love as a guide.
Yet it brings up the question we may ask about how difficult and realistic this teaching may be. How is it possible to love your enemy; to turn the other cheek in the face of aggression? When we feel we are criticized unfairly or our reputation is defamed or someone we care about is harmed by another, our natural reaction is defensive with a desire to seek revenge. So, am I supposed to be a door mat?
Then maybe the most impossible demand: “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Come on now! I’m far from God’s perfection. But, the real power here is that Jesus speaks about the love of God and how to love as God loves. That is what should be made more perfect in us.
Maybe part of the problem is that we don't really understand the meaning of the word “love.”
For example, we throw the word "love" around in reference to many things and use it in a multitude of casual conversations. We say we love Italian food and then use the same word to say we love our pets who give us love in return. Or you love your spouse or a good friend or I love to go skiing or I love my car or my cell phone. I may say that I love this movie or this particular song. I love to read. Children may say “I love you daddy” or “I love you mommy.” And that’s just to name a few situations in which we spread the same word around to describe how we feel about anything. That’s a lot of love!
A good example of what Jesus implies about love may be in the Church's understanding of marital love. At the present time for very good reasons, we Catholic priests are not allowed to hold weddings outside the Church. For those who request a wedding in a vineyard, near the beach, or by a water fall, we say: "Beautiful place for the reception but the wedding must take place in the sacred space of the Church." Why?
Because marital love is sacrificial and not based only on emotions and good feelings. It's not about the show or the destination it is about your love - your sacrificial commitment - to one another and eventually within the context of your family and out to others.
The altar has always been seen as the place of sacrifice. So the Church says to the couple, "Bring your love to the altar and join it with the sacrifice of Christ himself." To hold the wedding in a sacred place of worship and prayer and before the altar of Christ is to genuinely illustrate the commitment of husband and wife to one another and their continued life in the Church.
Married love, then, is called to become a kind of icon of sacrificial service in the same way that a celibate priesthood is called to be an example of love that reaches out beyond oneself. There is no better place to see that connection than before the altar of God where sacrifice happens. However, whether married or not we are all called to this heroic witness by Jesus who clearly sets the bar very high for his followers.
My point is that my "love" for Italian food is different than my "love" of ministry in the Church. Or husband and wife "love" each other differently than they "love" their two dogs - at least let's hope so! So, Jesus’ word must imply a qualitative difference in this fundamental teaching about love of enemies.
So, when Jesus says to "love your enemies “is he implying that we must feel affection for them as you would for your spouse, which is our popular understanding of love. In the case of our Lord, he supports a non-violent response to violent action. We are not called to be door mats or wimps. To love our enemies is to not engage in an eye for an eye as we hear in our first reading from Leviticus. It is better to not seek retribution but to illustrate for our "enemies" the value of forgiveness and reconciliation.
It is better and wiser to seek peace rather than to continue the evil perpetrated upon me or others. It is right to stand up in the face of evil and respond with ones integrity in tact rather than give in to dishonor or humiliation from another. In the Middle East the virtue of honor was sacrosanct. To be humiliated and dishonored would be shocking.
To “turn the other cheek” is a way of saying that “I will not be overcome by your insult.” Our Lord implies that even these acts of dishonor really mean nothing. So, I respond with no ill will toward you; no eye for an eye which just continues the round of aggressive behavior. Rather, I wish you no harm and offer a hand of forgiveness.
What means everything is the power to love peacefully. You can slap me on the face, take my tunic, force me to walk the extra mile but it all really means nothing. What matters is the power of my witness and the force of love to bring conversion. My love must be universal and not selective. This is what must be perfected in us and if so we have learned to love as God loves.
For example, the martyrs of our Church are held in such high esteem because they stood as witnesses to the higher truth of their faith rather than cower in submission to aggression. While they paid for this with their lives, their witness to this love only caused the Church to grow all the more. My example to the persecutors would be to show them a better way to behave. Not easy, for sure at times, but the better way of Christ. This is the higher road to walk in which I maintain my personal dignity which they tried to destroy and it is possible through the grace of God.
So, it is that we put no limits on our love for others. It’s not about how we may personally feel about them or their politics or their opinions but rather that we are all brothers and sisters joined by a common humanity. As God makes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, so too our honor and respect, our love for each other, should have no limits
Is this the road to perfection? Can we then be perfect as our heavenly Father? Well, in all truth conversion is a process, or course. At St. Paul reminds us today, “you belong to Christ.” Such high expectations by Jesus are only ultimately possible through the grace of God given to us. We know we are not perfect and will most likely never be so yet to enter the process of embracing this way of reverence for others certainly offers us the road map to achieve holiness before God.
In sharing the Eucharist together we share in the love of Christ, his body and blood, poured out for us.
As we celebrate your mysteries, O Lord,
with the observance that is your due,
we humbly ask you,
that what we offer to the honor of your majesty
may profit us for salvation.
Through Christ Our Lord.
(Prayer over the Offerings)