Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading in Leviticus Moses is calling the people to holiness. If another person does something wrong you should correct him. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge. “You must love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Jesus, continuing on from last week, tells his followers that while they were taught “an eye for an eye” they should not resist injury. “When a person strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other.” Also, while they had been taught to love their own and hate strangers Jesus told them to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. Anyone can love those who love him first. “In a word, you must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
For reasons that elude me I learned of a conservative Christian AM radio station and tuned in for an hour or so. Other than their disdain for Pope Francis I was struck by the tenor of their concern. They spoke about the need to aid those affected by the earthquake in Turkey and Syria but I didn’t hear much concern over the earthquake victims. I got the impression that we should send help because God demands it and that’s our only path to salvation; the victims were ancillary to our desire for heaven.
Last week I railed against the idea that salvation was transactional, that if we do enough right things or bank enough points God will have to grant us entry into heaven; I think today’s readings continue along that line. Jesus’ audience could easily have believed that when we treat someone else well only God pays attention. But I believe this lacks the type of imagination that God wishes for us. I believe that God calls us to kindness, forgiveness and generosity in the hope that it will transform us, but will also transform the other person.
In a famous scene from To Kill A Mockingbird the villain Bob Ewell spit on the face of Atticus Finch and Mr. Finch slowly and dramatically turned the other cheek, a clear reference to this reading. But why did Mr. Finch do this? Both the book and the movie were brilliant (in my humble opinion) and there is a long subtext where he is teaching his children about love, morality and the need to embrace Christian values. But was he also hoping, by this act, to teach those same values to Bob Ewell? Unfortunately the book ends with Bob attempting to murder Jem Finch and we can assume no conversion happened then. But could Bob have reflected on his actions in the years after these events? We’ll never know but I like to think of the possibility.
Remaining in the era of the civil rights movement these readings always remind me of Martin Luther King. In the fight for equal rights among different races there were countless voices on both sides demanding victory for one side and defeat (or dismissal) for the other. But Dr. King, steeped in Christian values, looked in a different direction. He has countless quotes on this topic, but here’s the one that I think speaks to this the most:
Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.
There is something radical in this: if both love and hate are decisions, only love is redemptive. But additionally, only love is sustainable. We build love in our hearts and our relationships and love grows. But hate does not: hate becomes a burden that grows only in the sense that it keeps us down. Even in victory hate’s power rings hollow.
In the 1930s we saw how it worked. Hitler and Mussolini took control of part of Czechoslovakia and Ethiopia while Japan invaded China and looked toward much of Eastern Asia. At the time it was easy to feel that evil was winning and our world would soon become almost unrecognizable. But by 1945 they were all defeated. It wasn’t easy and millions of people died but all those lands were liberated. Nations like the United States and England took on and defeated evil. Today even the defeated nations practice democracy and rule against discrimination (mostly).
But, as we continue to see, fearing that evil will win has become almost fashionable. Our hateful neighbor will always rip down signs for our political candidates. Hate groups will always find shelter in our reverence for free speech and convince good people to embrace their fears. Our ne’er-do-well son in law will never stop drinking and making life for our daughter miserable. And we are always tempted to lose hope that things will get better.
And yet, miracles can happen if we persist in loving them. Maybe our neighbor will find that he is tired of being angry and will stop vandalizing our property. Groups in history like the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan have lost their grip on large numbers of people because good people walked away from them. And as for that son in law? Well, give him time and prayer and don’t give up before the miracle happens.
Finally, I suggest we look again at the last verse of today’s Gospel: “You must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Our call to perfection does not rest on our strength alone. In the midst of praying for those in need of healing we need to remember that there is someone praying for the same thing in us. It doesn’t make us weak. It binds us together as well all look for a world where this reading isn’t radical.