Love Your Enemies
In this beautiful homily for 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Father Hanly tells us why we must love our enemies.
Readings for Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
- First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13
- Second Reading: First Corinthians 3:16-23
- Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
The subject of today’s Mass is “Love your enemies.”
If you didn’t feel a mild objection to the words of Jesus today after hearing this gospel, you haven’t been listening. I’m sure inside the church these are kind and wonderful words. Outside the church, though, I’ve hardly ever heard anybody say this.
Mark Twain is a wonderful American writer during the end of the 1800s and early 20th century and he has this to say:
He says if you look out on a cold winter’s night with the snow and sleet coming in and you see under the lamp post a little puppy and the puppy is shivering because it is open to the elements, if you go down and you take the little freezing puppy up and you bring him upstairs and you wash him in warm water and you put him near the fire and you feed him the best that you have to offer, that dog will never, never bite you.
And then he smiles and says that’s the main difference between dogs and human beings. Nobody’s laughing.
What Mark Twain is saying is if you have a cynical notion of life, what you do is you kind of pick and choose, and you don’t trust anybody really with anything that’s really important, because, in a way, the “other” is the enemy. In many ways, you have to kind of ease yourself into relationships and you’re very careful who you make friends with and you know who is going to take advantage of you or not, etc, etc, etc.
And that’s the way life is. We have our little group of friends. When we invite people to parties, it’s always our friends. And when we do something together, it’s always our friends.
Those that are kind of far away, and the further away they are, and the more strange they are, and the less you really give your heart to them. We’re very careful about strangers. And we teach this to our children sometimes.
Basically, to make it short, is that we don’t trust each other. And rightfully so, because very often when you do trust people, they betray your trust. And this is the way life is.
And then Jesus says,
“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand over your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
Why are we to forgive? Why is it so important that we forgive?
We think of the Old Testament as a God of vengeance.
It’s not true.
From the very first chapter when, remember, Cain killed Abel his brother and God was very angry with him and He asked, “Where is your brother?”
And Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
And God said, “No, you’ve killed your brother and that will separate you forever.”
And then Cain began to cry and he said, “But anybody who sees me will want to kill me for I will be a stranger in this land.”
And God says, “I will put a mark upon you.” And He put a mark on the head of Cain so that anyone who dared lift their hand against him would be punished by God Himself.
And what does this signify?
All life is sacred. All life is sacred, even Cain’s. And from that time on, to lift your hand against a brother or a sister, not only to kill them but in anger, was considered a sacrilege. For all human beings are born in the likeness of God Himself and must be treated with respect and kindness but, most of all, with forgiveness, for we do, very often, hurt each other.
The same lesson is given to us when, if you remember, Moses, he brought his people to the great Red Sea and he was going to cross over before Pharaoh with his army destroyed them all.
And he lifted up his stick and the waters parted and the Israelites ran across the dry land to the other side as the Pharaoh and his soldiers were riding fiercely in their chariots towards them to destroy them.
And they got to the other side and they were frightened and they turned again and God said, “Turn once again your cane and lift it up.” And he lifted it up and the waters came together and all Pharaoh’s army went rushing into the waters and they were screaming and yelling and drowning, but the Israelites were saved.
And so all the Israelites began to dance with Moses’ sister leading them with tambourines and thanking God. And with great joy they danced on the other side.
And the angels looking down at this great scene, the Israelites were saved and the Egyptians were dying, and they looked down on the scene and the angels began to sing and to dance and join them, because they too were happy.
And then God turned to the angels and said, “Why are you laughing? Why are you smiling? Why are you singing? Why are you dancing when my own children are dying, they are drowning in the sea?”*
We should remember that. The Israelites, the chosen people of God, dear to His heart, yes. And Pharaoh and his army intent on bringing them back into slavery, also found a place in the compassion, in the love, in the yearning of God Himself.
It’s God’s love that makes it possible for us to forgive. And that is why he tells us that we must forgive, beginning with each other. Because God’s love demands it.
St Augustine, as you know, was a great enemy of God for many years until he finally was converted and became Bishop of Hippo and the greatest theologian, perhaps, the church has ever produced. And he has this prayer that he reminds God, the prayer of Augustine was, “Dear God, if you’d treated me as an enemy when I was your enemy, how could I now call you my friend?”
It is God who is love that makes a fool of God, because He will not destroy those who hate Him, those that do not understand Him, those that see Him as weak, those that would have their own way rather than His way, because He is weak and helpless — His love makes Him so.
And so it is he tells us that forgiveness is not just a happy, nice thing that you do when somebody apologises.
Forgiveness means you’re ready to accept and forgive even before your forgiveness is asked for. You are never to look at another human being with anger and hatred in your heart. You are never to look at another human being, no matter what happens, as someone who deserves your wrath, as someone who deserves to be dealt with as if he was your enemy.
Jesus tells us the reason we find it very hard to imitate God who forgives His enemies is because God has no enemies.
God has made us sacred. He has blessed us with life. He has given us the power to love. But it’s His love, not our love. It’s His life, not our life. And He waits and He barters and He yearns and He prays, or whatever it is He does, waiting for us to turn and understand and to come home, because we are all His children.
The good and the bad, the lovely and the unlovely, the harsh and the gentle, we are all God’s children and we are considered by God to be His family and He loves each and every one of us. And so Jesus he taught us.
What are we to do if we follow him? We are to follow him.
In one event in Jesus’ life, a blind man was brought to him and the man could not see. And Jesus took some spittle and made some clay and put it upon his eyes. And he says, “What do you see now?”
And the man says, “I see trees and now suddenly the trees are moving and I’m beginning to see they are people.”
And Jesus blessed his eyes once again and the man says, “Yes, now I can see men and women walking.”
And Jesus says to him, “And now you are cured,” and sent him home.
What Jesus is saying to us is that our problem with each other is not that some are good and some are bad, and some are rich and some are poor, and some are this and some are that. It’s that we fail to see what we really are.
We fail to see deeper inside the people that annoy us, the people that we alienate, the people that we feel are doing us harm. We fail to see the hunger of their hearts. We fail to see that they, too, weep when they are at home and sad things happen to them. We fail to see them as human beings. We think of them as the enemy.
I remember when I was teaching the girls in one of the schools here, and it happened many years ago, perhaps some of you remember it, there was a terrible half crazed man who actually did something that we found it impossible to accept. He had killed somebody and he had dismembered the person and put them in jars. It was just awful.
And so I was talking to the girls, I was giving a talk, and I said, “How many of you feel that… What should we do with somebody who does this?”
And they all said, “Kill him. He must be brought to justice and we must destroy this man for what he has done.”
And then I kind of smiled and I said, “Suppose, just suppose now, that this man was your little brother who you fondled and loved and played with, who you felt very close to, and your mother put you in charge of him and you saw how he sang and how he danced and how he cried and how all these things.
“And then, suddenly, something happened to him and he turned. And, all of a sudden, and you couldn’t explain it, he became something that you could hardly even believe in.
“And now, what would you do if the judge came to you and said, ‘What should I do with your brother?’”
And they would say, “Well, we have to take him and make sure that everybody is safe.”
“Shall we kill him?”
“No. We can’t kill him.”
“And why can’t we kill him?”
“Because no matter what he does, he’s still my brother.”
This is what God is trying to teach us. He’s trying to say that the deeper you look and the more you try to understand what is going on in the hearts of the people around you, the closer you come to them, the closer you will be able to touch them.
And then, and only then, when you begin to see them as God sees them, not justifying it, just seeing them the way God sees them, for they too are the children of God, and they were created for eternal life and eternal joy, and something along the way crippled them.
And what are we to do? If we see them the way Jesus sees them, we forgive them with the forgiveness of God, we try to love them with the love of God, and then it is that we become his disciples.
Jesus on the cross is the final word. He looks down at everybody who has destroyed his hope of the future, who have taken away his dignity, who have made a laughing stock in front of the Romans and his people, and he lifts up his head and he says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
And then Jesus becomes our Messiah, for when he says these words, he finally and irrevocably says yes to God, yes to life, yes to all the people in our lives.
Jesus said at the end of this, today, he says,
“So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
But we forget that the perfection of God isn’t that He knows all, sees all. The perfection of God according to the Jews is God, and only God, forgives. And it is the perfection of God is that He forgives. No matter what happens, He forgives.
And as long as He forgives, we have hope. And as long as we forgive, every relationship in our lives, there is hope that God Himself will reach down and bring us together as true brothers and sisters.
*Father Hanly usually explained that this ending to the Red Sea story was from an ancient Jewish midrash that he always thought was important for us to hear. He doesn’t explain that in this homily, but he does mention it in We Are All Heirs Of Heaven.