Love

(Homily for Seventh Ordinary Sunday, Year A)

Bottom line: "Jesus' way of non-resistance to the evil man is not dreamy idealism. It is part of his call to a complete love - a perfect love that includes even our enemies. We cannot achieve that love on our own power, but only by his grace...

Last Sunday we saw four instances of Jesus citing the Scriptures, then adding, "But I say to you..." By this extraordinary declaration of authority, Jesus offers us a way to both inner peace and a better world. He goes beyond the demands of the law and tells his followers to avoid unnecessary oaths, divorce, anger and lust.

Today we hear the two final parts of Jesus' "way." They are non-resistance to evil and love of enemies. These two commands perhaps seem unrealistic - something possible only for an extraordinary person like St. Francis of Assisi. That is not the case. Let me try to explain.

Jesus quotes the Hebrew Scriptures - an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. In its original context, it was a call for moderation. In ancient times, tribes and armies imposed double or even ten-fold revenge. That's the natural tendency of the human heart - including yours and mine. "Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" tempers our immediate reaction.

But Jesus goes beyond moderation. "I say to you, offer no resistance to the one who is evil." He tells us that if someone strikes one's cheek, we should turn the other as well. Now, this saying has been misused. It has caused people to remain in an abusive situation. We need consider, however, what Jesus himself did when someone struck him. Do you remember when the temple guard slapped Jesus? Jesus did not strike back, but he did ask, "why did you hit me?" (Jn 18:23)

When someone strikes us - physically or verbally - the automatic response is to strike back. But Jesus shows us a different way: take a deep breath, then ask, "Why did strike me?" An abuser often hopes for a fight to justify his aggression, but he usually shrinks from explaining himself. He fears the simple question, "why?" - especially if he has to answer it before a public authority.

Jesus asks the right question. He is not a dreamy idealist. He does not tells us to hold hands, affirm the other person's goodness and, then, everything will be OK. He is more realistic than that.

We see Jesus realism in his final and culminating command: "You have heard it 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." In appreciate Jesus' realism we need to understand the word for "love." Once again, it is essential to know a little Greek. Unlike English, Greek has three words for love: First, eros, which is the love involved in attraction and longing. Then, philia, the love involved in friendship. Finally, agape, which can be defined as "unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill." Eros is based on feelings, philia on having something in common, but agape involves a deliberate act of the will.

Jesus is realistic. He knows that he cannot command our feelings. Our emotional reactions happen automatically, but they do not necessarily determine how we act. We can make a choice. We do have an inner core of freedom - a responsibility, a stewardship. That's where agape comes in. When Jesus says to love our enemies, he does not use the word "eros" or "philia," but agape. Love is a choice. As they say in Marriage Encounter, "Love is not a feeling. Love is a decision."

Regarding love, we can readily deceive ourselves. When the sun is out, when we are feeling good, when we face no grave crisis, it is easy have kindly feelings toward others, even those who irritate us a bit. But Jesus is talking about a much deeper love. C.S. Lewis gave this description of what it means for a Christian to love his enemy:

"We must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves to wish that he were not so bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. This is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not."

To consistently love one's enemies, to wish the best for those deliberately harm us, to pray for those who make one's life miserable - that a requires grace. C.S. Lewis pointed out that God does not love us because we are good, but that his love enables us to attain goodness. None of us can become perfect by our own efforts, but God's love will eventually perfect us. We cannot get into heaven otherwise. That is why some of us will probably spend a good amount of time in purgatory - that necessary process of purification to enter into the presence of God and the Communion of Saints.

So, to sum up: We have seen that Jesus' way of non-resistance to the evil man is not dreamy idealism. It is part of his call to a complete love - a perfect love that includes even our enemies. We cannot achieve that love on our own power, but only by his grace.

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Spanish Version

From Archives (Seventh Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2017: Hidden Wisdom Week 4 - Be Perfect
2014: Toward a Synthesis - Part 3
2011: Love

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