Saturday, February 27, 2010

So, Be Perfect, Just As Your Heavenly Father Is Perfect.

February 27, 2010
Saturday of the First Week of Lent

Reading I
Deuteronomy 26:16-19
Moses spoke to the people, saying:
“This day the LORD, your God, commands you
to observe these statutes and decrees.
Be careful, then, to observe them
with all your heart and with all your soul.
Today you are making this agreement with the LORD:
he is to be your God
and you are to walk in his ways
and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees,
and to hearken to his voice.
And today the LORD is making this agreement with you:
you are to be a people peculiarly his own, as he promised you;
and provided you keep all his commandments,
he will then raise you high in praise and renown and glory
above all other nations he has made,
and you will be a people sacred to the LORD, your God,
as he promised.”
Today’s reading comes from the last part of the Book of Deuteronomy, which is also the last of the five books forming the Pentateuch and containing the covenant laws by which the lives of observant Jews were guided.

Moses reminds the people of the solemn agreement that has been made between God and them. And the declaration is that he will be their God only as long as they “walk in his ways and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees, and hearken to his voice." It is a mutually binding contract. He will be their God on condition that they observe his laws and customs with all their heart and soul. If they do that they will stand out among all peoples as a people consecrated to their God and outstanding in their virtue.

However, the reading has to be read in the later context of the Gospel, which spells out more clearly just what are the commandments and statutes that really count. The emphasis in the Law of the Old Testament was very much on external observance of rules and regulations. The emphasis in the Gospel is very much on the interior attitude and on mutual relationships between God, other people and oneself.

Today’s Gospel passage on loving even one’s enemies in particular shows how far God’s commands are to be observed.

Nevertheless, the basic message stands: he is our God and we are to walk in his ways and to listen to his voice. That is the covenant that has been made between God and his people.
+++ +++ +++ +++
Psalm 119
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
Blessed are they whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.
Blessed are they who observe his decrees,
who seek him with all their heart.
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
You have commanded that your precepts
be diligently kept.
Oh, that I might be firm in the ways
of keeping your statutes!
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
I will give you thanks with an upright heart,
when I have learned your just ordinances.
I will keep your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me.
Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!
+++ +++ +++ +++
Matthew 5:43-48
Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies,
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you,
what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers and sisters only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Today’s passage, like yesterday’s, comes from the Sermon on the Mount. The two are not unrelated: both speak of dealing with people with whom we have difficulties.

It is a passage which many find difficult, too idealistic or just downright meaningless. The Mosaic Law said that one must love one’s neighbour. It does not actually say we should hate our enemies but in practice such hatred was condoned. Jesus rejects that teaching outright for his followers. We are to love our enemies and pray for them.

How can we possibly do that? It is important that we understand what ‘love’ here means.

In Greek it is the word agape, a deep concern for the good of the other that reaches out even if there is no return. It is not sexual, physical love, eros, nor is it the mutual love of intimate friendship or that between marriage partners, philia.

‘Enemy’ here means those who do harm to us in some way. It does not include the people we turn into enemies because we don’t like them. The true Christian does not have this kind of enemy.

The main reason Jesus gives for acting in this way is that that is what God himself does. God has many friends and many who are opposed to him, yet he treats them all exactly the same, his agape reaches out to all indiscriminately just as the welcome rain falls and the burning sun shines with equal impartiality on every single person.

Elsewhere we are told that God IS love, it is his nature; he cannot do anything else. And that love is extended EQUALLY to every single person - to Our Lady, Mother Teresa, to the murdering terrorist, the serial killer, the abusive husband, the pedophile… The difference is not in God’s love for each of these people but in their response to that love.

Jesus tells us that we must try to love people in the same way. It is important to note that he is not telling us to be "in love" with those who harm us or to like them or to have them as our friends. That would be unrealistic and unreasonable to ask.

But if we just care for those who are nice to us how are we different from others? Even members of a murder gang, people with no religion or morals do the same. But we are called to imitate the God in whose image we have been made.

And is it so unreasonable to love, to care for, to have genuine concern for our enemies and pray for them? One presumes, as we have said, they are enemies in the sense that they are hostile to us even though we have not provoked them in any way. True Christians, from their side, do not have enemies. For someone to be my enemy, it means that person really hates me and may wish to do harm to me or may already have harmed me in some way.

What do I gain by hating that that person back? Then there are two of us. Why should I allow another’s person’s hate to influence my feelings towards them? A person who hates, is a person who is suffering, a person who is doing more damage to himself - rather than to the supposed enemy. As the gospel says, another person can hurt my body but not my inner self.

And, if he or she does harm me, they only harm themselves as well, even if they get a twisted pleasure in the short term. If I have a true Christian spirit I will reach out in compassion to that person. I will want that person to be healed, healed of their hatred, healed of their anger, and to learn how to love.

Surely it is much better and makes more sense to pray for that person than to hate them back. To bring about healing and reconciliation rather than deepen the wound on both sides.

What Jesus is asking us to do is not something impossible or unnatural. It is the only thing that makes sense and will bring peace to me and hopefully in time to the person who is hostile to me. We can literally disarm a hating person by acting towards them in a positive and loving way and refusing to be controlled by their negative attitudes. “Bless are the peacemakers; they will be called children of God.”

“So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Obviously, this is an ideal that we can only reach out to. But it is a call to do our utmost to imitate God in extending our goodwill impartially and unconditionally to every single person. This is not just a commandment. When we reflect on it, it is simply common sense and it is as much in our own interest as it benefits others.


Sarah in the tent said...

Jonah had to 'love his enemy' by giving Nineveh a warning, but he did so under protest and seems to have hoped the city would be destroyed anyway. He prayed - but only for himself in the belly of the fish. He did not pray for Nineveh.

Part of the appeal of Jonah is that we recognize our own imperfections in him. They don't seem like really bad imperfections. But at the end of the story, this understandable lack of love in his heart is as harmful to him as the worm to the castor oil plant. He cannot be happy, even for the innocent animals of Nineveh. The man who once prayed 'how shall I ever see your holy Temple again' now cannot even enjoy God's presence. He is just 'mortally angry'.

If Jonah's heart had allowed him to be happy for Nineveh, his joy in God's presence, so deeply desired, would have been complete.

Not to love our enemies impairs our ability to love God.

I have found it helps if I try to view any enemies from a cosmic perspective: the vastness of the universe, rarity of sentient life in it (can't be picky!) and our imminent extinction anyway.

Enemies also challenge us. Just when I start to feel holy, some enemy makes me seethe with rage and reminds me I'm not. Also, the outrageous criticisms of enemies often have some truth in them, I must admit. An enemy can be easier to deal with than a friend because their expectations are already low. A good enemy can be refreshingly straightforward, whereas some dear friends can be painfully complicated. Also, although we know people by the company they keep, knowing the company they wouldn't keep in a million years can be even more enlightening.

I have sometimes felt relieved to find out that someone, who I had been struggling to 'love', is actually my enemy. There's something liberating about it: I don't have to feel so bad about not liking them and I know where we stand. I can finally start to appreciate them - as an enemy.

Sometimes I have even felt flattered that anyone should take enough interest in me to be my enemy.

Enemies - they're not all bad!

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

When I first saw this comment, I asked myself, "Why didn't Sarah post this on Wednesday, when the First Reading was about Jonah's mission to Nineveh?" My next question was, "Why did God want this message to be posted on Saturday and not on Wednesday?" The short answer is clear: there are no coincidences in God's plan.

Then I remembered the opening verses of the Book of Jonah:

1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me."
3 But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, on the Tigris River, near the present city of Mosul, in northern Iraq. Tarshish is identified with the Iberian Peninsula, that is, with Spain and Portugal. It is as if God sent his prophet from Chicago to New York, and he decided to go to Los Angeles, or, if you prefer, from Ottawa to Vancouver, and he went to Quebec instead.

The Lenten season is a very good time for us to reflect on our imperfection, to wonder that the Lord calls us to be his messengers in spite of our reluctance, and most of all, that he forgives us when we deliberately head in the wrong direction.

Remember: Jesus said, "I did not come to call perfect people, but sinners." He said that because there are no perfect people. Show me someone who says, "I'm perfect!" and I'll show you a liar, a hypocrite or a fool. Only God is perfect, and with God's help, we can come closer to "perfection" tomorrow than we were yesterday. "Why didn't you say 'today', Father John?" "Because, as Jesus said, 'Today has troubles enough of its own.'"