The Challenge of Christian love

Pastors corner with Fr Henry Ibe

In 2004, when the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat died, there was a lot of rejoicing in Israeli cities because he was their great enemy. And when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel suffered a fatal stroke in 2006, there were scenes of wild Jubilation in the West Bank and Gaza by the Palestinians who rejoiced over the fall of their great nemesis. Obviously, Jesus’ command to love one’s enemy didn’t make a lot of sense to the two parties. But who would blame them given the level of bloodshed that has taken place on either side? To love one’s enemy is very difficult in a world laden with so much evil, so much violence, so much discrimination, and so much unfaithfulness.

However, today’s readings challenge us to emulate Jesus in treating others not so much as they treat us but as the Lord himself would treat them. In the First Reading, King Saul is hunting David out of envy that he was about to take over the kingship. Incidentally, David and his companions discovered Saul and his troops as they lay asleep but decided to spare his life. This was the second chance that David had to kill Saul and eliminate the threat that he posed, but he chose not to as a mark of loyalty. The first time, Saul realized himself and said to David: “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly” (1 Sam. 24:17). He ended his pursuit of the young man at that time.

But when he decided to pursue David again leading to his falling asleep with his men, David was encouraged by one of his servants to finish him off this time, but David declined saying: “The Lord forbid that I should raise my hand against the Lord’s anointed!” (1 Sam. 26:11). David rose above political expediency to spare the life of someone who desperately wanted him dead.

For him, justice and vengeance belong to the Lord and that is a big lesson for us.
In the Second Reading, St. Paul reminds us that we have been made in the image and likeness of God and are called to show it. He recalls the Book of Genesis where the first man and woman were made in the image and likeness of God. Their fall into sin disfigured the divine image and likeness in them, and this they could not resolve by themselves until the new Adam arrived – our Lord Jesus Christ, who not only reflected the true divine image and likeness that we are called to, but also gifted us with the Holy Spirit to enable us live a life of grace and plenitude. Through Christ, our earthly existence is transformed into a heavenly one and it is this spiritual transformation that we are called to manifest in the way we treat others.

In today’s Gospel account, Jesus shows us how to act towards those who treat us unjustly: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly” (Lk.6:28). Through the transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit, we are to rise above political expediency and the urge to exact revenge and learn to respond with kindness and compassion to injuries. Jesus demands that we don’t just tolerate our enemies but that we love them, just like he loved us while we were still the enemies of God through sin. As Scripture says, “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Rom 5:8). He was scourged, bruised, spat upon, and ridiculed but he did not pay back evil for evil. Instead, he prayed to the Father to forgive those torturing him. He was stripped of his clothing and dignity, and ultimately nailed to the cross in a most brutal way.

Today, our Lord invites us to not just love but also to pray for those who hate and persecute us. Humanly speaking, this is almost impossible but with the grace of God, we can do all things. This means that instead of giving in to feelings of vengeance, we need to pray for healing both for ourselves and for the ones who have hurt us. That way we can expect the forgiveness of God for our own mistakes. We need to realize that the Lord himself and others love us even when we don’t love them in return. Loving and praying for our enemies will help to restore the image and likeness of God in us, such that we become more like our Father in heaven: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45).

Dear friends, there are many examples of Christian men and women who kept the Lord’s command regarding their enemies. St. Stephen forgave those who were stoning him to death. St. Maria Goretti forgave the neighbour who tried unsuccessfully to rape her and ultimately stabbed her to death. St. Ignatius of Loyola once trekked a hundred miles in the winter to look after a sick man who had stolen his entire savings only a few weeks before.

When visited by the man who betrayed him in prison, St Edmund Campion not only forgave him but also gave him a letter of safe-passage from England to Germany, because his own life was also in danger. And more recently, we all should be familiar with the story of how Pope St John Pail II forgave the man who shot him. He not only visited the man in prison but also lobbied for his release.

This week, therefore, let us make a list of all those that we have struggled to forgive over the years, and let us ask the Lord for the grace to love and pray for them.