This weekend marks the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, and we’re creeping closer and closer to Lent (Ash Wednesday is March 1st!) To help you get more from the Mass readings this weekend, I would strongly encourage you to take a look at the readings before you go to Mass – one of the easiest ways to do this is to click this link to the USCCB website. The readings this Sunday challenge us to do something hard, so I’ve put a few of my own thoughts below to help you make a little more sense of what’s going on in each of them.
The Gospel this Sunday (Matthew 5:38-48) is the second part of what we heard last Sunday: Jesus’ discussion of six areas where His followers ought not only to act righteously but to ingrain our righteous actions with love. It’s an expectation that we will live up to (and love up to) a higher standard than the world around us. Last week, we were challenged by His comments on anger, adultery, divorce, and the swearing of oaths. This week, His words center on the way we respond to our enemies and those who do us harm: and his words shouldn’t be that surprising. You’ll hear familiar phrases like turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and pray for those who persecute you. These can be hard, but I suspect the most difficult of all the things He says in the Gospel today is His command to love our enemies.
As often happens with Scripture, this command doesn’t come from out of nowhere – this challenge to show love for our enemies builds on other passages found in other places in the bible. Following the death of Abel at the hands of his brother, Cain, unlimited revenge seems to be the order of the day (Genesis 4:15). The statement which Jesus quotes in the Gospel (an eye for an eye/a tooth for a tooth) first appears in Deuteronomy 19:16-21, and meant to limit the revenge leveled against another who has done harm by his words or actions. In Tobit 4:15, we hear what’s known as the silver rule: what you hate, do to no one, which sets the stage for the more familiar golden rule: In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you… (Matthew 7:12). Finally, we have the Gospel passage today where we are asked not only not to seek any sort of revenge against one who has harmed us – but we are given the challenge to love our enemies.
Chances are, this command will elicit one of two reactions from you. The first might be that it makes a lot of sense. Both of the other readings (Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18 & 1 Corinthians 3:16-23) tell us a bit about why Jesus might ask such a thing of us. To be made in God’s image and likeness, to be a temple of the Holy Spirit, and to be given the challenge to be holy/perfect as our Father is holy/perfect means to learn to recognize that same goodness and dignity in EVERY PERSON AROUND US. This is true of those in our families, those who share Church pews with us on Sundays, those we go to school or work with, and especially (based on this Gospel passage) those who aren’t any of those things. This could mean someone from a different faith background, someone who has a different worldview, someone who cheers for a different sports team (yes, even Calgary Flames fans), and even people who troll us on social media.
The second reaction you might have is that this is crazy. You may be more on board with the “unlimited revenge” concept from Genesis – because, after all, if someone has hurt us, they should know what it feels like to suffer. I mean, Jesus can’t possibly understand what it means to be betrayed or to suffer a whole lot of pain, can he?
This is a big part of why He gives us the example of what it’s like to suffer – and, in turn to pray for His accusers and love his enemies (see Luke 23:34). As you hear Jesus’ challenge at Mass this weekend to ‘love your enemies’ – lean on His example (and His help) to do the same for those in your life who have hurt you, or whom you have the hardest time with.
Some great further reading on this topic is the story of St. Stephen who, in Acts 7:59, prayed for those who were about to kill him… and then had the chance to welcome one of his persecutors (Paul) to Heaven.