7th Sunday of Year A (Matt 5:38-48)
February 19, 2011
By Fr Mike Lagrimas
A PRIEST was teaching on the topic of love. He asked the question to his listeners: “Who among you here do not have enemies?” An old man raised his hand. The priest was delighted. “Look at him! Such a perfect example of love! Tell us. What did you do?” The old man said, “Nothing. I have no more enemies because they are now all dead.”
Who likes enemies, anyway? Many would want them dead and gone! If not, at least we want to get even. That is the reason behind the law of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” mentioned by Jesus in the Gospel this Sunday. This is an ancient law written by a man named Hammurabi 4,300 years ago (cf. William Barclay). But far from encouraging revenge, it seeks to limit it. Before this law, the custom was to wipe out the entire tribe in retaliation for an offense of one tribe member. Hammurabi says that the only one to be punished is the culprit, sparing the rest of the tribe. And his punishment is commensurate to the offense done. The victim, in turn, cannot put the law into his hands and exact revenge. A judge has to decide on the case.
This law sounds rational and just. But for Christ, this is not enough. The law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” will eventually make this world full of blind and toothless people! Revenge and violence are not Christian options. Christianity is rooted in the virtue of love. In fact, if we compress the entire Bible, we will come up with only one word – love. The word love appears in the Sacred Scriptures five hundred times. And St. Vincent de Paul, Apostle of Charity, was right is saying, “I have only one sermon, but I twist it a thousand times.” That sermon is about love.
Jesus always insists on this commandment – love God and neighbor – for three reasons. In the first place, it is because God is love. For one who loves, he becomes God-like. He challenged us: “Be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.” Secondly, it is because Jesus knew how important it is for our life in this world. According to tradition, when the Apostle St. John was already old, he repeatedly says the same thing to his followers: “My dear children, love one another.” When asked why he repeats the same message over and over again, he explained: “Because it is the command of the Lord, and if it is done, it is enough.” Finally, the Lord insisted upon it because he knew it is never easy for us to love as he did. We need to be constantly reminded of it.
This Sunday, the Lord even goes further in his teaching about love of neighbor. He commanded us to love our enemies – the persons who make our life difficult. Surely, people in this world will consider this a crazy idea. Our enemies deserve to be hated; they ought not to be loved. But Jesus insisted: “Love your enemies, pray for your persecutors, and offer no resistance to one who is evil.” He has the right to say this because he himself did it as he clearly showed us by his sufferings and death on the cross.
The Lord told us to love our enemies, and not to imitate or become like them. There is the saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” This cannot be applied to a Christian. The only way to beat the enemy is not by applying the “an eye for an eye” policy, but by loving them as proven true by the example of Jesus. A saying goes: “Love your enemies. It will drive them nuts!”
Most often we judge according to the standards of this world. If somebody hits us, we have to hit back. Otherwise, we will be perceived as weak and coward. That is what the world is telling us. But fighting against our enemies does not stop them from being enemies, just like fighting fire with fire. There is undeniable wisdom and truth in the use of love to stop our enemies, just as firefighters use water to stop the fire.
God dares us to be different from the world by conforming to His standards. As Christians, we do not belong to this world. The reason why many Christians have become irrelevant and insignificant in today’s society is because they simply follow and imitate the world. It is easy to spot a Muslim or Buddhist on the street by the way they dress and pray in public. But we can hardly say this for Christians. The challenge is set before us: we ought to be different – as light in darkness and salt on food – in order to become effective agents of renewal and transformation. And the supreme distinguishing factor is love – “This is how all will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (Jn 13: 35).
This point is clearly illustrated in the example of thermometer and thermostat. When you bring a thermometer into the room, it simply records the temperature of the room. It changes itself to conform to the environment. The opposite is what happens with the thermostat. When you set the thermostat of the air conditioning unit or heater in the room, in a short while the room changes to the level of temperature the thermostat is set. It does not follow the environment, but changes it. [Adapted from “Hot Illustrations”, Youth Specialties, Inc., 2001.]
As Christians, we are not supposed to be just a thermometer. Instead, we must be the thermostat of the world – the leaven of society, the light of the world and the salt of the earth. By living and witnessing to the teachings of Christ, we ought to inspire and motivate the hearts of people and become effective agents of change and renewal, in order to hasten the coming of God’s kingdom in this world.
This commandment challenges us to go out of our way, to be different, and to go beyond the superficial and mediocre. If we love only those who love us, what merit is there in that? We have to learn to love as God loves us. Only then can we be known as true followers of Christ.
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