Thursday, September 9, 2010

Jesus Said: "Do Good To Those Who Hate You, Bless Those Who Curse You, Pray For Those Who Mistreat You."

Memorial of Saint Peter Claver, priest
Reading I
1 Corinthians 8:1b-7, 11-13
Brothers and sisters:
Knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up.
If anyone supposes he knows something,
he does not yet know as he ought to know.
But if one loves God, one is known by him.

So about the eating of meat sacrificed to idols:
we know that there is no idol in the world,
and that there is no God but one.
Indeed, even though there are
so-called gods in heaven and on earth
(there are, to be sure, many "gods"
and many "lords"),
yet for us there is

one God, the Father,
from whom all things are
and for whom we exist,
and one Lord, Jesus Christ,
through whom all things are
and through whom we exist.

But not all have this knowledge.
There are some who have been
so used to idolatry up until now
that, when they eat meat sacrificed to idols,
their conscience, which is weak, is defiled.

Thus, through your knowledge,
the weak person is brought to destruction,
the brother for whom Christ died.
When you sin in this way against your brothers
and wound their consciences, weak as they are,
you are sinning against Christ.
Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin,
I will never eat meat again,
so that I may not cause my brother to sin.
Paul now moves on to another local problem for the Christians of Corinth - the question of eating food offered to idols.

The Corinthians’ second question concerns meat that has been sacrificed to idols; in this area they were exhibiting a disordered sense of liberation that Paul here tries to rectify. These chapters contain a sustained and unified argument that illustrates Paul’s method of theological reflection on a moral dilemma. Although the problem with which he is dealing is dated [namely, eating food offered to idols], the guidelines for moral decisions that he offers are of lasting validity.

Essentially Paul urges them to take a communitarian rather than an individualistic view of their Christian freedom. Many decisions that they consider pertinent only to their private relationship with God have, in fact, social consequences. Nor can moral decisions be determined by merely theoretical considerations; they must be based on concrete circumstances, specifically on the value and needs of other individuals and on mutual responsibility within the community. Paul here introduces the theme of “building up”, i.e., of contributing by individual action to the welfare and growth of the community. (See also 1 Corinthians14; Romans 14:1-15)

The topic - meat sacrificed to idols - is immediately introduced. This refers to meat which had been offered in pagan temples to idols. Meat left over from a sacrifice might be eaten by the priests, as well as by the offerer and his friends at a feast in the temple or sold in the public meat market. (At the site of ancient Corinth, archaeologists have discovered two temples containing rooms apparently used for pagan feasts where meat offered to idols was eaten. To such feasts Christians may have been invited by pagan friends.) Some Christians felt that if they ate such meat, they participated in pagan worship and thus compromised their testimony for Christ. Other Christians did not feel this way.

Today’s passage begins with a rather abstract and vague statement which makes one wonder where Paul is leading us. In fact, he is enunciating a principle of the very greatest importance for our living together as Christians and one that we neglect at our peril.

Paul opens with an apparently well-known slogan: “All of us have knowledge.” In Greece, knowledge was felt to be everything but Paul says that it can make people arrogant. What really builds people up, he says, is love (a central theme of this letter). Knowledge without love is barren. People equipped with much knowledge may not have a real understanding of what life is about.

The truly wise person - like Socrates - above all knows what he does not know. One is reminded of those people on the TV programme “Mastermind” who had encyclopaedic knowledge about all kinds of things but as persons may have been quite inadequate in coping with life.

Pure knowledge can lead to arrogance and a feeling of superiority; love, on the other hand, builds up. Better a person filled with genuine love and theologically ignorant than a topnotch theologian without a trace of love.

The person who loves and, in particular, the person who loves God “is known by God”, that is, has a direct experiences God’s love and thus knows how to relate with others. This is the only knowledge really worth having.

It serves as an introduction to a question which was very relevant to the Christians of Corinth, namely, the eating of food which may have been offered to idols. In itself, this is clearly not a problem for people in most of the Western world but it can still be a matter of conscience in Asia and Africa. (One thinks, for instance, of the food involved in ‘ancestor worship’ in China which was at the heart of the ‘Rites Controversy’. The custom still survives and Christians can now be involved.)

The question for the Corinthians then was: Should Christians eat such food or not? Would they be compromising their Christian faith by taking this food? Could they accept invitations to eat such food in a pagan house or temple?

Some Christians, especially converts from a former pagan life, felt that by eating this meat they were taking part in idol worship and were compromising their Christian faith. Others, however, including Paul and perhaps others with a Jewish background, did not feel that way at all.

Paul gives a very nuanced answer but one which we should read carefully: In principle, enlightened Christians are completely free to decide for themselves, but they must avoid leading astray other Christians who are not yet liberated from their pre-conversion ideas. In other words, as he has already said, knowledge alone is not enough for a good decision; love of neighbour must also be taken into account.

Paul first enunciates some of his own convictions about the issue.

There is really no need to worry about food offered to idols because idols do not represent anything. There is only one God. The rest are pure fakes. Indeed there seem to have been many so-called gods in the Greek and Roman pantheons which were worshipped by thousands of people but the Christian knew that they had no real existence whatever.

For Paul, as for us, there is only “one God, the Father, from whom all things come and for whom we exist”. And “there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things come and through whom we exist”. These statements are found in different formulations throughout Paul’s letters.

Nevertheless, continues Paul, the Corinthian Christians have to acknowledge that among them there are many converts who have not completely shaken off their old superstitions. While they have abjured the worship of idols, they still have a feeling that they are somehow real. And they are inclined to think that the food they see offered to idols is being offered to something real. If, during a feast following worship in a temple, they are invited to share in the food, they feel they are taking part in idol worship and have sinned.

Others, like Paul himself, do not feel this way at all. They know that the idol has no existence and that for them there is no real worship involved with a statue in a temple. The meat, whether it is at a temple feast or on sale in the market place, can be eaten with impunity by Christians.

However, Paul warns that those who, like Paul himself, feel ‘liberated’ in this matter must be careful not to become a stumbling block, a source of scandal to their more sensitive brothers and sisters. If the latter see a brother or sister dining together with people in a temple and eating food that has just been offered to an idol, may they not be tempted to think that it is alright to eat this meat when, in their weakness, they still attribute some reality to these idols? In which case, they may further be led to believe that worshipping idols is acceptable.

In this way one could bring about the spiritual destruction of a weaker brother or sister. The weak Christian could be influenced by the example of the stronger Christian and, even though he felt it to be wrong, would eat the meat offered to an idol.

The weaker brother may be persuaded to eat but afterwards would be filled with guilt for doing something he believed was quite wrong and against his Christian faith. What is worse, if they did this often enough, they might blunt their consciences and continue to do something they still felt in their heart of hearts was not right.

In such a situation, it is the “stronger” brother who has sinned. A weak conscience is wounded by eating meat offered to idols. The result may be moral tragedy. There is a sin against Christ, who is present in the weaker brother, and it could break the unity of the members of the body (the church).

So Paul has made his own decision in this matter. Even though he himself has no problems about eating such meat, he has resolved never to eat meat ever again rather than be a source of scandal to a weaker member of the community. Paul says he will not hurt the brother’s feelings and he will abstain from something which in itself has nothing to do with his loving and serving his Lord.

There is a very important lesson for all of us here. Certainly principles, laws and rules are very important and in general they should be observed. But there is one over-riding principle - and Paul mentions it - and that principle is love, that is, a sensitive and empathic caring for the well-being of the brother or sister. The not-eating of meat on such occasions was a small price to pay for a brother’s or sister’s peace of mind.

In our Church today, for instance, there are people who still have not fully come to terms with changes, new ways of seeing things, which were introduced by the Second Vatican Council. To take one small example, there are people who still insist on eating fish on Fridays, even though they know it is not now compulsory to abstain from meat. There are also those who want to receive Communion on the tongue and kneeling down. For many others, receiving in the hand and standing makes much more sense and is closer to the ancient customs of the Church.

In the long run, though, it is not an issue to be fought over (though it may be discussed). By being adamant over not eating fish on Friday or taking Communion in the hand we may drive a brother or sister away who still feels scruples about touching the Eucharistic bread, something they were sternly warned about in the past.

This does not mean that we should be adopt an attitude of indifference that one way is as good as another. People do need to be formed to help them understand the mind of the Church in such matters.

In the meantime, we must carefully distinguish between matters where we can in no way compromise. On marginal issues, however, we need to follow Paul’s example of being flexible. The ultimate aim is to bring all together in union with Christ present in each one.*
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 139
Guide me, Lord, along the everlasting way.
O LORD, you have probed me and you know me;
you know when I sit and when I stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.
My journeys and my rest you scrutinize,
with all my ways you are familiar.
Guide me, Lord, along the everlasting way.
Truly you have formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother's womb.
I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works.
Guide me, Lord, along the everlasting way.
Probe me, O God, and know my heart;
try me, and know my thoughts;
See if my way is crooked,
and lead me in the way of old.
Guide me, Lord, along the everlasting way.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 6:27-38
Jesus said to his disciples:
"To you who hear I say, love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who mistreat you.
To the person who strikes you on one cheek,
offer the other one as well,
and from the person who takes your cloak,
do not withhold even your tunic.
Give to everyone who asks of you,
and from the one who takes what is yours
do not demand it back.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
For if you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners love those who love them.
And if you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners do the same.
If you lend money to those
from whom you expect repayment,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners,
and get back the same amount.
But rather, love your enemies and do good to them,
and lend expecting nothing back;
then your reward will be great
and you will be children of the Most High,
for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as also your Father is merciful.

"Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together,
shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you."
For many people, even those who identify themselves as Christians, this may be one of the most difficult passages in the Gospel. It seems to express an idealism that is totally unrealistic and unattainable.

We live today in a world of great violence, of terrorism, of increasing litigation - suing and counter-suing, violence and murder, of vicious vendettas often stirred up in the tabloid press and other media, the horror of terrorist attacks on the innocent. Are these things not to be avenged?

Where do Jesus’ words fit in? It may be worth noting that the passage (in the original - not in today’s reading) begins: “I say this to you who are listening.” In order to understand what Jesus is really saying to us, we have to put aside our prejudices and assumptions and really listen to what he is saying. This passage, in particular, is one where we are likely to react emotionally.

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” We may feel that to follow this teaching is to try something which is totally beyond our capacity, that it would require a tremendous amount of will-power and that it would only encourage those people to behave even worse. In the Old Testament hatred of evildoers is presumed to be the right attitude to have. But Jesus is extending love to the enemy and the persecutor.

This is the core of Jesus’ teaching, which he himself practised. The Golden Rule which is often expressed as “Do not do to others what you would not want them do to you” is expressed here in positive terms.

The first big hurdle is the word “love”. For us it is a very emotional word, implying both affection and intimacy. For us to “love” is often to “be in love with”, to “be attracted to”. But Jesus is not telling us to be in love with our enemies. He is not even telling us to like them. The Greek verb which the gospel uses is agapao from which the noun agape comes. Agape [pronounced ‘ah-gah-pay'] is a special kind of love. It is not the physically-expressed love of lovers nor is it the love of close friends. It is rather an attitude of positive regard towards other people by which I wish for their well-being.

This, in fact, is the love that God has for us. It is a one-sided love in the sense that a return is not expected. God reaches out in infinite love to every single person without exception. God wishes every person to experience that love; God wishes the fullest well-being of every single person. That love of his is often not returned; it is often rejected or ignored.

But it continues unabated, like the father in the story of the prodigal son waiting for his boy to come back. The father continued to love his son even in his lowest moments of debauchery and degradation. It was the same with the people who were nailing Jesus to the cross. He prayed for them, for their being forgiven and that they might come to a realisation of just what they were doing.

In this sense, loving our enemies seems altogether reasonable. And not only not impossible but really the only thing to do.

Who are our “enemies”? First of all, they are not our enemies in the sense that we hate them or want to harm them. In that sense, Christians should have no enemies. Rather, they are people who are hostile to us. They want to harm us, take revenge on us, even destroy us, or whatever.

There are two ways we can deal with such people. We can set out to do more harm to them, to take revenge on them, or try to wipe them out completely. Or we can try and work to turn them round.

Our problem is that we tend to focus too much on ourselves and our own immediate needs and overlook the needs of others. To love as God loves is to focus more on others. We can only do this if we have a strong inner sense of security and self-acceptance. Then we are not too worried about what people say about us or do to us.

And then, too, we can turn our attention much more to the one who is hating or harming. We will begin to ask why do they have to act in this way. What is hurting inside them that drives them to such behaviour? Already we are just by thinking in this way beginning to care for our enemy and beginning to love him or her.

And is not this a much better solution to the problem? To bring peace back into that person’s life and initiate a healing process in them and between them and me.

Jesus is not at all asking us to do something “unnatural”. We do not naturally want to hate or be hated. We want to love and to be loved. We see many parts of the world where - for years - there has been a process of hatred and retaliation in a never-ending spiral of vengeance and loss of life.*

The Irish Jesuits

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