Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I Want To Test The Sincerity Of Your Love

2 Corinthians 8:1-9
And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will. So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have for you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

Matthew 5:43-48
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

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Not long ago, this question was posted on an “Ask a Priest” message board I follow and take part in.

Dear Fathers,

About five years ago, when I was 13, I was sexually molested by a man in my neighborhood. He was a migrant who worked on the farm next to ours. It was late summer, the end of the harvest season, and he went away a few weeks later. I’ve never seen him again, and for a long time, I never even thought about him. I saw a psychologist for a while after that happened, who told me that if I told her the story, I could put it in a part of my memory where I never needed to remember it again.

That worked for a long time, Fathers, but now those memories are coming back again. It’s not so much that I remember what happened to me – I know that was a long time ago, and it can’t hurt me anymore. But now, I wonder about something else: There are two parts to “Forgive and forget”, Fathers, and I don’t know if I can forgive him, and I feel that if I don’t forgive him, I won’t really ever forget, and it will bother me all the rest of my life.

Can you help me?


Almost everybody is familiar with today’s gospel, especially that first part. “You’ve heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say, ‘Love your enemies, do good for those who do your harm, pray for those who persecute you.’” And a lot of folks think that, while it may be an ideal, it is a hopelessly unrealistic one. That may be true, for some people. But every so often, something happens like Jamie’s plea on that message board. And that gets me to thinking: if Jamie is aware, deep inside, that “forget” is the second part of “forgive and forget” for very good reason, psychologically, that insight comes from the Holy Spirit; and if Father John L is going to help her in this situation, I need to seek insight from the very same source. That, sisters and brothers, is being realistic!

Let’s take a few steps back, not to move away from the question, but to get a better perspective on it. We are often reminded that “Love God with all your heart, mind and might, and your neighbor as yourself” is the Great Commandment. But if you combine that adage with this one: “Love your enemy; do good to those who do you harm; pray for those who persecute you”, then that Great Commandment now appears in a new light: someone who has done me harm is my neighbor. “Father, does that really mean that I’ve got to love them?”

Let me put it this way: If someone is mean, hateful, spiteful, and even abusive to me – in short, my enemy – do I want that person to suffer eternal damnation? That may well be the way I feel, but should it be the way I act? If we want to be disciples of Jesus, we can’t want that! Jesus gives his life on the Cross for that person, just as truly as he does for me. Jesus is counting on me to help my neighbors to open themselves to accept the love God offers each of us. How can my enemy know of God’s forgiveness if my forgiveness is not forthcoming first? Or, in another perspective: How can I hope that God will forgive my offenses, if I don’t forgive those who have offended me?

OK, Father, I can understand the need to forgive our enemies. But love our enemy? At this point Father John L needs to take off his canonist’s biretta (it has blue tassels, not black or red), and put on his language professor’s mortarboard. Greek has several verbs that translate “to love”, and several nouns that match each of those verbs, that mean “love”, in various contexts. The verb Matthew uses in this text doesn’t refer to the love between a man and a woman or the love of one friend for another. This verb is best translated as “to care”, or “to be concerned”, or even more accurately, “to want what is best” for the other person. It’s the attitude both Jesus and Stephen had when they prayed, “Father, forgive them”.

From my own perspective, there is a big difference between me and a terrorist bomber, or between me and a child rapist. But the simple truth is that God’s saving grace is necessary for you, me, the bomber, and the rapist, and it is a gift which he gives freely, as this passage from the gospel of Matthew attests, not in return for our obeying his will, nor even for our loving him, but because he has first loved us.

People who know me, in person or even “on line”, are well aware how often I say, “Don’t try to be perfect; only God is perfect”. It’s a bit off-putting to read the last line of today’s gospel, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The solution to this conundrum is found in the parallel passage of Mark: “Be merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful.” God doesn’t forgive us because we are deserving, but because He is merciful. Go now, and do likewise.

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