“LOVE YOUR ENEMIES.”
Homily for Feb. 19th, 2017: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18.
AIM: To help the hearers share with others the forgiveness God lavishes on us.
Do you have an enemy? Someone who stands in your way; someone who refuses to understand you; who has cruelly misjudged you; who is convincing others that you are a bad person, when you know you are only trying to do your best? Is there someone who has inflicted terrible injustice on you – or on someone you dearly love – at work, at school, in your family? If you have enemies – indeed, if you have only one enemy – then today’s first reading, and the gospel we have just heard, are for you.
How should we treat enemies? There is a cynical answer to that question: “Don’t get mad, get even!” Which of us has never experienced the desire for revenge? Today’s readings tell us something terribly hard for us to accept. “Take no revenge,” our first reading tells us. “Offer no resistance to one who is evil,” Jesus says in the gospel.
How, we ask, can Jesus demand something so difficult? Because revenge merely escalates the level of level of hatred and the desire for further revenge. We see this in the history of the last century. World War I began in 1914, just over a century ago. It left 20 million dead. Because there no reconciliation when it ended in November 1918, it was followed twenty-one years later by World War II, which cost 80 million lives.
When we seek vengeance nobody wins. Instead everybody loses. Certainly your enemy loses when you seek revenge. Ah, you say, but isn’t that just the point of taking revenge: to inflict pain and loss on the one who has wronged me? True. But no matter how much your enemy loses through your vengeance, he will never lose the one thing he most needs to lose: his enmity. The more you try to pay him back, the greater his enmity is likely to become.
When you seek revenge, you also lose. You allow yourself to be dragged down to your enemy’s level. You become like him: a person of anger, bitterness, and hate. Instead of conquering your enemy’s evil, you allow yourself to be conquered by it.
Is there an alternative? There is, and Jesus gives it to us when he says: “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.”
Suppose, instead of cursing your enemy, you were to pray for him. Suppose, rather than seeking revenge, you were to extend forgiveness. Prayer and forgiveness are the way to heap coals of fire on your enemy’s head, to melt him down from an opponent to a penitent. When you repay enmity not with evil but with good, you are burning away enmity and evil with the fire of love.
That is the way God treats enemies. We make ourselves God’s enemies each time each time we choose our own selfish desires rather than his holy will – which alone can bring us true happiness, though we often find it difficult to believe that.
Isn’t this what Jesus is doing right now, around this altar? He is welcoming us, who have failed him so often; who will continue to fail him; who have denied or betrayed him in a hundred ways: secretly, half-secretly, openly, even brazenly. Despite all these things, and to show us that he loves us with a love that will never let us go, he invites us to his holy table, where he feeds us with his own body and blood.
When Jesus does this, he heaps coals of fire on our heads: not the fire of vengeance but the fire of love, to burn away our betrayals and to warm our hearts so that we can begin to love him with at least a pale reflection of his fiercely burning love for us.
And to love not just him: to love one another. That is what the Lord is asking us to do in today’s readings: to share with others the forgiveness and love he lavishes of us, despite all our betrayals of his love. Today’s responsorial psalm reminds us of the gifts we are called to share:
He pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills,
He redeems your life from destruction,
crowns you with kindness and compassion.
Merciful and gracious is the Lord,
slow to anger and abounding in kindness. (Psalm 103:3-4, 8)
In trying to share those wholly unmerited gifts with others, especially with those who have done nothing to deserve our sharing because they are our enemies, we are fulfilling Jesus’ demand in the gospel. We are proving ourselves daughters and sons of our heavenly Father, who bestows his life-giving sunshine and rain on bad and good alike. By trying to imitate him who loves his enemies into submission – who will never stop loving us, no matter how unfaithful we are to him – we are being made perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect.