As presented by Fr. Andrew Mead, Rector Emeritus, St. Thomas’ Church, New York
Lessons: Lev 19:1-2, 9-18; I Cor. 3:10-11, 16-23; St Matthew 5:38-48
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen
For the past several weeks we have been working our way through Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 5. Today we have the climax of what are called Jesus’s antitheses: “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” And this climax shows how Jesus moves beyond the Law, beyond justice itself, to the perfection of God whose nature, as revealed by his Son, is love.
The old law of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” in the Torah actually restricted human retaliation within the limits of social equity. Proportional punishment remains to this day in the political and legal orders of the nations of the world, adapted to times and places. But Jesus sets forth a principle of non-retaliation: “Do not resist an evildoer.” Then he goes still further: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you…”
Jesus grounds this teaching in the very nature of God, whom his followers are to join him in calling “Father.” “Your Father,” says Jesus, “Makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” And Jesus concludes, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
G.K. Chesterton a century ago famously said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Actually the ideal of today’s Gospel has not been left untried. It has been accomplished – determined, dared and done – embodied in the life of Jesus himself, whose sacrifice takes us into the heart of God. This is the mystery of God’s self-giving, self-sacrificial love.
We are inclined to think that Jesus’s Summary of the Law – “to love one’s neighbor as oneself” – is the summary of the Gospel. But it is not. It is, as Jesus said, the summary of the law. The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, fulfills and goes beyond the law. As the Lord was about to go to his crucifixion, the night before he died (Maundy Thursday), he washed his disciples’ feet and gave them bread and wine with the words, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Drink this; this is my blood which is shed for you, and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” During all this, Jesus gave his followers what he called his New Commandment. “I give you a new commandment, that you should love one another: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
This new commandment goes far beyond natural justice, far beyond the Golden Rule. The perfection of God, his nature as Love, is revealed here by the Son, the Word-made-flesh. Jesus calls us redeemed sinners his “friends,” and he lays down his life for his friends. If Jesus is the Head of the Church, the Body of Christ, and if we his followers are the members of that Body, he wants us to act the part, to follow him, to be his living representatives through time and space.
Some Christians, those of the so-called “pacifist” tradition (which is an honorable though a minority tradition in the Church) insist that Jesus’s non-retaliatory, self-sacrificial principle be extended to the politics of nations. Should such aggressors as Hitler, or the 9/11 terrorists, be violently resisted? The majority position in the Church has been that of the so-called “just war” tradition. This is a discussion worth having, but the setting in today’s Gospel is personal relations on a small scale. How or whether it can be transposed to social or political realms is a matter of ongoing debate.
It is indeed difficult to apply this teaching to our singular, personal lives as believers and followers of Jesus. If you are a person of integrity, if you stand for your beliefs, if you are a leader who must make decisions, you will provoke opposition, gain detractors, and, yes, make enemies. Besides, some people just don’t like some other people. And some people are just mean. One’s very existence can offend others. And some of these people, for various reasons, become our enemies. These problems begin very early in life.
We usually don’t like our enemies. But Jesus does not say we must like our enemies, he says we must love our enemies. “Like” is a matter of personal feelings. “Love” is a matter of the free will. When Jesus says we are to love our enemies, he means we are to choose to will the good for them.
We can start where the Lord says to start: to pray for those who persecute us, to bless those who curse us. It may be that as we persevere in this prayer and blessing, it begins to affect our thoughts towards these adversaries. It may be that as we start a new habit of thinking, we are led to new ways of relating to them. And it may be that this prayer will move the mountain of enmity. It may be that it will change the tragedy of the feud into wonder of reconciliation. With God nothing shall be impossible.
Bad as they may be, our enemies are just as much God’s children, the objects of his care and concern, as we are. In fact, our enemies may be God’s good gift for us! Not only is it good to pray for our enemies, but also to take note of what some of them say about us. They may be onto something that we don’t see or want to see about ourselves, something that we may not hear from our friends and very likely not from those who may be dependent on us!
When my father-in-law was sick and in his last days, he once asked me if we would meet foes in heaven. We will meet foes in heaven. But fear not; heaven belongs to Jesus Christ. The wolf will lie down with the lamb and the child will put his hand on the adder’s den. All will be well, and heaven is the more glorious for this.
Jesus’s teaching is breathtaking. Life is no longer business as usual. In fact Jesus wins by losing! His cross is his victory and shows that love conquers all. That is why we must go and do likewise: he who would save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for Christ’s and the Gospel’s sake will save it. Follow me, says the Lord. “This I command you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
 Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina, p. 88.
 My father used to say, “Well, pardon me for living.” (!)
 I owe this counsel to something I read many years ago about John Keble (1792-1866), the saintly parish priest and founder of the Oxford Movement. But I cannot find the reference.