Sunday Reflection – “Forgiveness” by Fr Martin McCormack
Word of God and Salesian Life by Fr Juan Jose Bartolome SDB
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A – Lectio Divina on Mt 5,38-48
There are few Gospel texts that present the radical demands that Jesus made of his disciples with the same clarity that we find in this concluding passage of Matthew Chapter 5. It contains one of the most unusual teachings of Jesus, one of the least practical precepts, or rather, one of the least practised: love for neighbour that is completely gratuitous and without limits. Unlimited gratuitous love is love that is given to one who does not deserve it, to one who has offended us, who is still our enemy. It is an unheard-of demand, but the reward could not be higher. The disciple who loves one who does not love him is like God. By imitating the perfection of his Father in heaven, he behaves in a manner befitting the son of a God who is perfect love.
At that time: Jesus said to his disciples, 38 “You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I. Read: understand what the text says, focussing on how it says it.
We must not forget that this text is part of a longer discourse. Jesus has reaffirmed the validity of the law (Mt 5,17-18) showing with various examples how it is to be fulfilled to the letter, which means reading and understanding what God really wants (Mt 5,21-48). Jesus therefore presents himself as an exegete, not of the law, but of the original will of the lawgiver. He explains the law better than the scribes, because he knows God better than any other.
In this passage Jesus comments on the law of retaliation and explains in unheard-of terms the commandment of love of neighbour. He proceeds to formulate his own thoughts, and he draws conclusions that are almost unimaginable. The law of retaliation may seem inhuman to us today, but for the Jews it was a great step forward. It insisted that compensation should be identical to the offence. However, that was not the way Jesus thought. It is not enough not to follow the logic of revenge. Violence, however logical it may seem, is wrong for the disciple of Jesus. It is better to concede one’s rights than to use violence to enforce them. The ‘justice’ that Jesus asks for is not the justice we desire in our hearts. What right does anyone have to ask us not to react to an offence, but to turn the other cheek or to avoid conflict by giving more than what is demanded?
The commandment to love our enemies makes it even clearer that Jesus is asking the impossible. We are already trying to love our brother and our neighbour. Now we must try to make our enemy a neighbour we love if we want to be recognised by God as a son of God. Returning a greeting or loving someone who loves us is nothing out of the ordinary, but it is not enough for a Christian. To remain at this level would make us no better than the pagans, and the God whom Jesus taught would be left with one son less! Whoever desires the extraordinary gift of being a son of God, will have to behave in a way that is not ordinary, by loving his enemy. You could not ask for more, and Jesus does not ask for anything less from his disciples.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed something extraordinary, that the kingdom of God was very near: God was becoming ruler of the world and of the hearts of those who were awaiting him. For that very reason, and for that reason only, Jesus demanded extraordinary conduct from all those who believed in him and longed for the kingdom of God. They are to wait for God by trying to become perfect like him. The God proclaimed by Jesus wants his faithful people to be like him, and he asks for nothing less. Living according to his will means loving others as he loves. We are his subjects if we have him as our model and the goal of our own conduct. Anyone who wants to be recognised as son must be a faithful and worthy copy of the Father. And the way to do this is by loving all, gratuitously and without limit, as he does.
Jesus says that love must always be extreme, without limits and with no exceptions. His disciples, if they want to be children of the Father, must not pay back evil nor exclude those who do them evil. If we were to love like this, it would change our lives and change the world. If we look well we will see that this kind of love is not yet a reality even among the disciples of Jesus. The law of retaliation governs human relations because, even when the civil law does not allow it, it still rules in our hearts – and how! We continue to think that the punishment must fit the crime, that an offence must be paid for with an equal penalty. When this does not happen, when the offender does not pay and remains unpunished, hatred rises in our hearts and we call it ‘thirst for justice’. We continue to hate the one we cannot punish – this is our revenge. Hating our enemy gives us a certain satisfaction and restores the balance upset by the offence.
Even though we are Christians we live in a society where vengeance is considered justice and a measured reprisal has become the basis of interpersonal relations. We are accustomed to confusing the justice that is part of our well-organized society with the love that we as Christians are called to show. Since we do not succeed in living at the level demanded by the will of God, and since we are unable to love as he loves us, we make excuses when we are offended by our enemies. We think we are not loved and we settle for not loving. We accuse those who have offended us, and we excuse ourselves from our duty to forgive them. We make use of our enemies to justify ourselves before God because we are unable to be like him. They free us, we think, from the burden of imitating God who makes his sun rise on good and bad alike.
In the Gospel Jesus dismisses our excuses and condemns us. Anyone who does not love his neighbour – however unlikeable he may be, and even if he has already shown himself to be our enemy – cannot delude himself that he is like God. We fulfil the command that Jesus gave to his disciples only when we show love even to our enemy. And our enemy is not the one who has done us wrong or who hates us, but the one we are not able to love and forgive and forget his offence. Let us not forget, Jesus did not ask his disciples if they were willing to love without revenge or recompense, and without distinction. He did not take into consideration our various reasons nor did he leave us a choice to follow his teaching or not. The one who does not imitate God will not be considered a disciple or a son of God. But he did give us a good reason: only one who loves in this way is like God. Love of neighbour, friend or enemy, companion or persecutor, is our way of imitating God who does not insist that we are good before loving us, nor does he cease to love those who do not desire his love. Filial love mirrors paternal love. Divine love is not selfish. But our love is selfish if we love only those who love us. Selfish love is a denial of God who is a loving Father, and it is a denial of our neighbour who has a right to expect to be loved, at least by those who call themselves followers of Jesus.
To love without first being loved, doing good where it has been denied, refusing to respond with violence even in the face of harm suffered, granting to those who ask more than what is due, respecting those who do not respect us, loving our enemy, is not just difficult – when has it ever been easy to love our friends or those who love us? – it is, if not impossible, then very rare among us. It is with good reason that the liturgy makes us pray to God, before we listen to his Word, that our meditation on his teaching may help us to do what is pleasing to him. Without God’s help it would be impossible for us to imitate him, but his help is as extraordinary as his commandment.
However, it is no less certain that, if we do not imitate him, it will be impossible for us to have him close to us. If we find ourselves complaining that God has abandoned us, that he no longer loves us as before, or that he does not show his love in the same way, we ought to ask ourselves is it not we who have abandoned God or left him in some corner of our lives. Have we ceased to do his will as our daily bread? Have we ceased to show the world, to show our friends and our enemies, that disciples of Jesus who love God also love their fellow beings as he does, gratuitously and without limit or distinction?
When we commit ourselves to making the world less violent and making our hearts less selfish, we become, step by step, children of God and disciples of Jesus. Our society is becoming ever richer and yet less willing to share, more free but less fraternal, more humanitarian and at the same time more inhuman. This makes Christian love all the more necessary, even if it is less normal. How can it be that we believers are often the very people who are first to seek justice, who insist on rigorous punishment, who are less inclined to forgive and forget? How can we begin to pardon those who offend us if we are not able to love those who hate us? If Christians in our society continue to behave as we have done until now, is it worth being Christian unless we have something new to offer, something that is difficult and extraordinary? Will God find children on earth who make it their life’s task to love as he loves?
We have probably all tried, and almost certainly we have not succeeded completely. We know from experience that to be good to those who are not good to us is very difficult if not impossible. The commandment of Jesus obliges us to recognise our inability and so it gives us reason to pray. We ask God to plant in our hearts his will and his capacity for forgiveness, to make us his children capable of being brothers and sisters to all, and to grant us the capacity to love as he wants his children to love. We ask him to make us his own, giving us his love, first of all as an experience that brings daily joy, and then as a task that becomes possible with his help.