7th Sunday of the Year Leviticus 19:1–2, 17–18; 1 Corinthians 3:16–23; Matthew 5:38–48
Walk two miles “Don’t let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good.’’ Romans 12:21
Anew patient walked into the office of the famous psychiatrist Dr. Smiley Blanton. The patient noticed a copy of the Bible on Dr. Blanton’s desk.
Don’t tell me that the great Dr. Blanton reads the Bible, said the patient.
I not only read the Bible, said Dr. Blanton, I meditate on it. It’s the greatest textbook on human behavior ever written. If people followed its teaching, a lot of psychiatrists could close their offices and go fishing.
What did Dr. Blanton mean? How is the Bible a textbook on human behavior? How are its teachings a guide to psychiatric health?
One insight into these questions is found in today’s gospel. There Jesus tells his disciples: Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.
Like a good teacher, Jesus then goes on to give an example of what he means. He says, If one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles.
To appreciate Jesus’ example, we need to know something about the situation in Palestine when Jesus lived.
Roman occupation forces controlled Palestine. They held a kind of life-and-death power over Jewish citizens.
For example, if a Roman officer tapped a Jewish citizen on the shoulder with his sword, the citizen had to do whatever the officer commanded him to do.
In other words, Roman officers could commandeer Jewish citizens just as police officers today can commandeer a citizen’s car, if they need it. For example, a Roman officer could order a Jew to carry some object for a distance of one mile. Recall Simon of Cyrene. A Roman officer commandeered him to carry the cross of Jesus. Mark 15:21
In the face of this Roman law, Jesus tells his disciples, If one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles.
Why did Jesus give this strange advice?
The answer to that question takes us back to Dr. Blanton’s statement about the Bible. He said, If people followed its teaching, a lot of psychiatrists could close their offices and go fishing.
When Jesus tells his disciples to walk “two miles,” he is saying in effect, Whenever the Romans press you into service, don’t let it anger you. Don’t let it fill you with hate or resentment.
Why does Jesus say this? The answer is clear.
When people hate their enemies and resent them, they end up hurting themselves far more than they hurt their enemies.
One author explains it this way:
When we hate our enemies we give them power over us power over our sleep. . . power over our blood pressure, power over our health and happiness.
Our enemies would dance for joy if they knew how our hatred tears us apart. Our hatred is not hurting them at all. It only turns our own days and nights into a hellish turmoil. Anonymous
In other words, the only way the bullet of hate and resentment can hurt our enemies is if it passes first through our own bodies.
Small wonder the ancient Greeks used to say, The wise man will always suffer wrong rather than do wrong. On the other hand, a response of kindness toward one who wrongs us helps not only us but also the other person. Bruce Larson tells a humorous story on himself that illustrates this point.
One evening during rush hour, he was running to get in line for a bus. Suddenly a large woman shoved in ahead of him. She almost knocked him to the ground.
In mock apology Larson said to her, Pardon me! I didn’t mean to smash into you like that. The woman’s reaction to Larson’s insincere remark was amazing. She really thought he meant it.
Her face did a double take, and all her wrinkles changed position. I’m so sorry, she said. How can you be so kind to me after I was so terribly rude to you?
Now it was Larson’s turn to be confused. He didn’t know what to say The woman had responded to his counterfeit kindness as if it were real. And for the moment, at least, she was transformed.
Larson gathered his wits enough to mumble something like, It doesn’t hurt to be nice to people. Afterward, riding home on the bus, Larson felt humiliated and embarrassed by his pettiness and insincerity.
Lord, he prayed silently, what are you trying to teach me?
And the answer came back, Bruce, I’ve been trying to tell you, and for centuries people like you, that love will always release a chain reaction of love.
Larson began to see that responding with love toward those who wrong us benefits both parties far more than does a response of hate.
When we respond with love, we release love where it is needed most. We stop the chain reaction of evil and put in its place a chain reaction of love.
And so we come back to Dr. Blanton’s original statement: If people followed the teaching of the Bible, a lot of psychiatrists could close their offices and go fishing.
We might sum up the teaching of today’s Scripture readings with these words from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Do not let evil defeat you;instead, conquer evil with good. 12:21
Let’s conclude by asking the Father for the grace and the courage to live out these words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. . . . Be merciful just as your Father is merciful. . .Do not condemn others,and God will not condemn you; forgive others, and God will forgive you. Luke 6:27–28, 36–37
Series II 7th Sunday of the Year Leviticus 19:1–2, 17–18; 1 Corinthians 3:16–23; Matthew 5:38–48
Jerry’s request The key to loving our enemies is to pray for the grace to do this, to pray for them, and to see them as God sees them.
Some years ago Newsweek magazine carried a moving story.
What first got you interested in the story was the photograph that accompanied it. It showed three boys, ages seven to eleven, kneeling in the front pew of a church. Below the photograph were the words, “This Was Left Behind.”
The story went on to say that the eldest boy, Jerry, always turned on the radio immediately after he woke up in the morning. He liked to listen to the news while he dressed for school.
This particular morning the news was bad. Someone had placed a bomb on United Airlines Flight 629. It exploded over Colorado in midair, killing 44 persons.
Jerry finished dressing and started down the stairs. As he did, he saw his grandmother and the parish priest standing at the foot of the stairs.
Jerry took one look at them and said, “My mother and father were on that plane, weren’t they.” Jerry was right.
Later that day the children of Saint Gabriel’s, where Jerry and his brothers attended school, asked their pastor for a prayer service for their three classmates. The pastor asked Jerry if this would be all right. Jerry said it would. Then he added, “Could we also pray for the man who killed my mother and father.” This story illustrates Jesus’ commandment in today’s gospel, when he says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
I think it’s interesting that the hero in that story is a child. Somehow children seem to understand the difficult teachings of Jesus so much better than adults do.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus said, “[U]nless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3 This raises a question that all of us must face squarely and honestly.
What do we do if we find it impossible to love an enemy? What do we do if we find it impossible to pray for someone who has hurt us deeply? What do we do if we find it impossible to forgive a certain person?
We can do three things.
The first thing we can do is to ask for the grace to forgive the person.
During World War II, Corrie ten Boom was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbruck.
After the war she traveled about Europe, giving talks and urging citizens of rival nations to forgive one another for war crimes.
One night, after a talk in Munich, Germany, a man approached her and held out his hand in a gesture of reconciliation. When Corrie saw who it was, she was shocked. It was one of the most hated guards of the camp where she had been a prisoner.
Corrie froze. Try as she may, she couldn’t reach out and take his hand.
As she stood there she began to pray, saying, “Jesus, I cannot forgive this man. Help me to forgive him.”
At that moment some mysterious power helped her reach out and take the man’s hand in true forgiveness.
That episode taught Corrie an important truth. The same Jesus who gave us the command to love our enemies gives us the grace to obey the command. All we need do is ask for it.
This brings us to the second thing we can do.
Besides asking for the grace to forgive our enemies, we can also pray for their well-being.
We can do what Jesus did on the cross when he prayed for his executioners, saying, “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing.”
Those who have prayed for enemies testify that a remarkable thing happens in the process of praying for them. One person explained it this way:
When I want to change a negative attitude toward someone, all I have to do is to begin praying for them. After about a week of prayer, my attitude toward them begins to change. I don’t know how it works, but it does. This brings us to the third thing we can do. Besides praying for the grace to forgive another, and besides praying for that person’s welfare, we can also try to see the person in a new light. Commenting on this, one person said:
If we could get inside the heart of our enemy and walk around in it, we would find enough pain and sorrow there to disarm us of all hostility toward that person for the rest of our lives.
We would then see people not as enemies but as human beings.
We would see them as sons and daughters of our Father in heaven.
We would see them as brothers and sisters who have their own special song to sing, their own special act of love to bestow, and their own special message to speak to the world—just like us.
We would see them as God saw them when he created them.
We would see them as Jesus saw them when he died on the cross for them.
And so if we find it hard to love our enemies, there are three things we can do.
First, we can ask for the grace to love them.
Second, we can pray for their welfare.
Third, we can try to see them in a new light. We can try to see them as fellow human beings whom God loved enough to create and whom Jesus loved enough to die for. Let’s close with a prayer:
Lord, help us love those whom we find difficult to love.
Bless them with your grace. Help them develop into the persons you saw they could become when you created them.
Help us see them through your eyes for what they really are, brothers and sisters, not enemies. M.L.
Series III 7th Sunday of the Year Leviticus 19:1–2, 17–18; 1 Corinthians 3:16–23; Matthew 5:38–48
Love your enemies Be careful how you live; you may be the only Bible some person ever reads. W. J. Toms Why should God reward you, if you love only those who love you? Matthew 5:46
Young Yevgeny Yevtushenko was in Moscow with his mother in 1941 after the Russian victory over the Nazis. Some 20,000 German war prisoners were scheduled to be marched in a single file through downtown Moscow.
The street was lined with onlookers, held back by soldiers and police.
The bulk of the onlookers were Russian women whose bodies and clothing reflected the hardships of a long, difficult war.
Every woman there probably had had a husband, son, father, or brother killed in the fierce battles against the powerfully equipped invaders.
They gazed with resentment and anger in the direction from which the soldiers would come.
At last the Nazi soldiers came. Leading the line were the officers, their chins stuck out proudly, their faces filled with defiance. Their whole manner was one of disdain over their undeserving victors.
The women began shouting and shaking their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to restrain them.
Within minutes, however, something happened to change the mood of the onlookers lining the streets.
The long line of neatly dressed, arrogant officers faded into a long line of soldiers, “thin, wearing dirty bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulder of their comrades; they walked with their heads down.” Yevtushenko writes, and I quote directly:
The street became silent the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.
Then I saw an elderly woman in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying,
“Let me through.” There must have been something about her that made him step aside.
She went up to the column, took from her coat something wrapped in a kerchief, and unfolded it.
It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of the soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet.
And then suddenly from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies.They were people. Reported by, quoted by Donald Nicholl in Triumphs of the Spirit in Russia (Darton, Longman & Todd). Reprinted in The Tablet, October 4, 1997, p. 1272.
For a boy, innocent of brutality and hatred, the sight imprinted itself on his mind so deeply that he would never forget it the rest of his life.
At that moment of his young life, he saw the command of Jesus, in today’s Gospel, lived out.
Moreover, he saw it lived out in a way that brought hope in the midst of the terrors of this aftermath of war.
You have heard it said, “Love your friends; hate your enemies.”
But now I tell you; love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. . . .
Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the tax collectors do that.
And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the pagans do that.
Jesus concludes, saying, “You must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” At first, these lofty words of Jesus sound like an unreasonable, if not impossible, goal to strive for. But consider this surprising fact:
Most people would say that if the service organizations upon which all of us depend functioned perfectly 99 percent of the time, they would be more than satisfied. Not so!
Jerry Fritz of the Management Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business says that functioning at 99 percent efficiency would produce the following chaotic conditions:
—Some 200,000 people would receive the wrong drug prescription each year.
—Our drinking water would be unsafe to drink three and one-half days of the year.
—Our homes would be without electricity seven hours a month.
—22,000 checks would be deducted from the wrong bank accounts each year.
—12 babies would be given to the wrong parents each year.
If our service organizations must strive for perfection in their service to people, shouldn’t we followers of Jesus strive for similar perfection in our love and service of God?
Jesus himself thought so and commanded us to do so.
Here it is important to recall that the same Jesus who gives us the command to love our enemies and strive for perfection gives us the grace to do so. We need only ask for it.
Let us close with a poem that sums up the spirit of today’s Gospel:
The man who misses all the fun Is he who says, “It can’t be done.” In solemn pride he stands aloof, And greets each venture with reproof. Had he the power he’d efface, The history of the human race.
We’d have no radio or motor cars, No street lit by electric stars; No telegraph nor telephone, We’d linger in the age of stone. The world would sleep if things were run By men who say, “It can’t be done.”