24 February 2019
1 Samuel 26.2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23
1 Cor 15. 45-49
A robber entered the house of a rich business man at night intending to steal whatever he could find that was valuable: money, maybe jewels etc. Unfortunately, the wife and mother of their three young teenage children heard a noise, got up to see what was happening. The robber panicked when she challenged him and tragically he shot and killed her instantly. Later he was caught by the police. The husband of that young woman was interviewed and asked what he would like to happen to the man who murdered his wife. His reply amazed everyone. He said, ‘I forgive the killer of my dear wife. I am a Christian and my faith tells me to love my enemies’.
How many of us could give such a reply if someone we loved, someone totally innocent, was murdered? Would it not be very difficult indeed? Yet this is the radical message of Jesus in today’s gospel. Because, he says, this is the way our Heavenly Father treats each one of us. According to Jesus, ‘If you love your enemies and do good, you will have a great reward and you will be sons and daughters of the Most High because He Himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked’. He goes on, ‘Be compassionate or merciful as your Heavenly Father is compassionate / merciful’. How very hard indeed to put into practice.
Yet this is precisely what Jesus did as he was dying on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” He said in another place ‘what is impossible for man or woman is possible for God’. So with God’s grace it is possible but it may take time nonetheless. Jesus – by forgiving and loving his enemies – broke the cycle of violence. Instead of returning hatred for hatred he returned love and mercy. Not only is this the great Christian commandment, it is also a great psychological truth, because if we do not forgive our enemies it will come back on ourselves sooner or later.
The following story may help. “Having heard Buddha speak against returning evil for evil, a man decides to see if Buddha practises what he preaches. The man shouts all kinds of abuse at the great teacher and then calls him a stupid fool. Buddha listens patiently. When the man runs out of bad things to say, Buddha says, ‘my son if one refuses to accept a gift from another, to whom does the gift go? ‘Any fool knows that, the man replies scornfully. The gift goes back to the giver!’ ‘My son, says Buddha, you have given me much verbal abuse. I refuse to accept your gift’. The man is dumbfounded. Buddha continues, ’The one who slanders another is like someone who spits at the sky. His spittle does not dirty or soil the sky, it only comes back to soil the face of the one who spits.
Jesus asks his disciples to follow the basic imperative of loving generously, even to loving our enemies as he did on the cross. If not, like the spittle, our hatred or desire for vengeance will come back on ourselves.
We saw, in the months leading up to Christmas, the violence in the Holy Land. The cycle of violence not only continues but gets worse. Israeli soldiers kill Palestinians. The Palestinians reply and kill Israelis and the cycle of violence and hatred goes on and on. This hatred between the two sides will eventually have disastrous effects on the next generation and on their children’s children unless someone gets the grace and courage to see what is happening and works to break the cycle.
But that person may have to pay for it with their life. Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Archbishop Oscar Romero – three great witnesses to non-violence, witnesses to the primacy of love – all paid for their work with their lives. Forgiveness is really the only way out of the cycle of violence and that is why Jesus insists on it. But good will is not sufficient. We need to beg God continually for the gift of the Holy Spirit to free us to be able to forgive and love our enemies. It may take a long time for many of us.
Isn’t it a great temptation for us to retaliate with an ‘eye for an eye attitude’? God is not asking me to solve the Palestinian conflict but he is asking me – ‘Is there anyone you refuse to forgive or seek to take revenge on? See what it will do to you if you go ahead. You may have instant satisfaction but it is a down payment on future suffering. Jesus says simply today to each of us. “I know it is very difficult to love your enemies and forgive them. You cannot do it yourself. Ask me for help and I will enable you to do what you may now think impossible”.
We need to recall that each one of us is made in the image and likeness of God. And so we can do as Jesus did. We make the choice: we can be nominal or minimal Christians, fulfilling the letter of the law but failing to be generous to others as God is to us. God has very many and serious reasons for being unforgiving and taking revenge on us. But our God is Love and his incredible mercy and generosity is an invitation for us to do likewise aided by the Holy Spirit.
“Lord, what you ask us to do seems impossible but you tell us that with your help we can break the cycle of violence in our part of the world. Lord. I do believe, help my unbelief. Amen”.