Jesus says to “love your enemies” in the Gospel reading for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A.
This year, this Gospel reading comes at a time when examples of the astonishing true meaning and power of that command are sadly common.
Earlier this month in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pope Francis met victims of violence, and was so stunned by what he heard that he said he was left “without words.”
Ladislas Kambale Kombi, a 16-year-old boy from Butembo-Beniu, said he can’t sleep at night without seeing the image of his father being beheaded in front of him.
But “Following the spiritual and psychosocial accompaniment of our local Church, I and the other children who are here have forgiven our captors. That’s why I place before the cross of Christ the Victor the same machete as the one that killed my father.”
Bijoux Mukumbi Kamala, a 17-year-old girl who was repeatedly and viciously raped for two years ending in 2020, asked that the pope bless her twin girls, conceived in rape. Under the crucifix, she placed a mat, “a symbol of my misery as a raped woman … so that Christ will forgive me for the condemnations I have made in my heart against these men.”
“May God forgive us all and teach us respect for human life,” she said.
It is astonishing that she is able to speak of her own sins and forgiveness in the same breath as those of her captors — but this is what Jesus asks in the Gospel.
“Your tears are my tears; your pain is my pain,” said Pope Francis. “I am with you; I want to bring you God’s caress … While the violent treat you as pawns, our heavenly Father sees your dignity.”
How could these Christians say these things? How is that kind of forgiveness possible?
Jesus describes how the Mosaic Law has been preparing us to love like God for millennia. “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” he begins. “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.”
We tend to think of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as if it were a call for vengeful action. That’s not what it means at all. It was meant as a limitation on retaliation, not an encouragement to retaliate. It was a variation on “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It was God’s way of saying, “You have no right to take to yourself anything more than you have lost.”
Jesus does not contradict this teaching; he takes it one step further, teaching his followers that God alone is the judge and sentencer of each of us and everybody we meet. Contrary to how we may act sometimes, Christians are judges and sentencers of nobody.
Jesus doubles down on this teaching by adding positive elements to it — not just limiting our retaliation against offenders, but demanding charity toward them.
Not only should we not demand that clothes stolen by the poor be returned, but we should treat all of our clothes as belonging to those who need them more than to us. And not only should we allow ourselves to be pressed into service for one mile — as Simon of Cyrene would be at the Way of the Cross — but we should voluntarily go even further.
How far? “I say to you, love your enemies,” Jesus says. Then comes the key concept of Jesus that Christian heroes have lived but most of us haven’t.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your heavenly Father.” That last part is the key to the whole passage, and key to the entire Gospel.
In saying to love your enemies, Jesus is saying that just as we are not in a position to offer justice on our terms, we are also not in a position to hate. What we know is that everyone who opposes us is made in the image and likeness of God. What we don’t know are their motives. As one anonymous early Christian author put it, “It is not that our enemies are fit to be loved by others, but that we are not fit to hate anyone.”
We don’t love our enemies because it’s safe or right. We love them because we, too, are sinners — sinners who Jesus wants to make into God’s adopted sons and daughters.
We tend to think of adoption by God as a way to enjoy his special benefits — forgiveness, grace and glory. Jesus wants us to think of adoption as sons and daughters of God as doing his work, his way, in his world. Loving others (and deciding to keep on loving them, no matter what) imitates the perfection of God’s love: A love that gives to all; that “causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
This is why true Christians’ stories are so astonishing.
We should never forget, and never stop sharing, the stories of 21st century martyrs and heroes of the faith such as those who met Pope Francis and prayed for forgiveness of their persecutors.
At the meeting, two women raised their arms — one was missing a hand, the other was missing both hands, taken by their captors. A priest laid an axe at the foot of the crucifix on their behalf. Léonie Matumaini, representing his elementary school, said “I place before the cross of Christ the Victor the same knife as the one that killed all the members of my family.”
These are Christians who hear the words of our first reading in a totally different way than I do. It says: “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. You shall never bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.” I have no reason to hate, but find myself hating anyway; they have every reason to hate, but refuse to.
They are Christians who have done what St. Paul says in the second reading. They have “become a fool, so as to become wise.”
Pope Francis told the congregation to continue to reject the temptation to hatred, because hating other human beings is “a form of blasphemy” that corrupts the human heart.
He’s right. Hatred refuses God twice: It attacks his image in others, the way the devil does, and it disowns God’s Fatherhood in our own life.
But the only way to answer with love the pain life gives us is to put our suffering beneath the cross, on which Jesus loves all of his enemies, including us, suffering and dying our death for us, with his arms wide open.
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