With today’s gospel, we reach the apex of the Sermon on the Mount. There is no other religion which teaches us to love the enemy. For good reason. This command is humanly impossible.
Sometime back, the BBC produced a life of Christ called the ‘Son of Man’; not surprisingly, Christians wouldn’t readily recognise this as the Christ from the gospels. But they did capture some powerful scenes. In one of them, Roman soldiers have just destroyed a Galilean village and killed and brutalised men, women and even children. Into that strides Jesus, saying “Love your enemies”. How would you have responded to that? Jesus was not proclaiming some utopian idea of a world which doesn’t exist. The gospel of Jesus is one which makes a difference in the concrete world we live in, in our situations. Everyone in Galilee knew who the enemy was: Rome. And this situation is unfortunately, not alien for a lot of Christians today, living in persecution.
There was the report of an order of nuns who were providing medical aid in Iraq which they continued, during the ISIS occupation. One day, a group of ISIS fighters brought in a wounded fighter and threatened the nuns of violence if they wouldn’t not just tend to him, but positively guarantee his recovery. What do you do when the ones who are literally killing you is the one, you’re to heal? And even then, demanding that mercy, rather than requesting it? One of them said they had no time to collect their thoughts or their emotions; she prayed and felt the Holy Spirit give her a peace which she couldn’t explain and she could attend to him.
Here, we might not face an enemy like ISIS; but your enemy is simply someone who wants to destroy your life. It could be your husband, your wife. What does it mean to love your alcoholic husband who has lost his job, your savings and forced you to work longer hours to keep the family afloat? What does it mean to love, when your enemies are those bullying you at work or in school?
Let me give just three points on this perplexing gospel.
First, to love the other does not mean being a doormat. It does not mean that you cannot or should not stand up for yourself. You might of course, discern that God is calling you to do so, but this gospel is not a prescription to be passive and let others do whatever they want.
Second, when we are faced with violence of whatever kind, we can respond in two ways: we can retaliate, with violence; or we can become passive and resigned. But the love of God is neither. It is not passive, being a doormat; it is a creative force. To love is the ultimate power, you are in control. On the Cross, in his terrible agony, Jesus was the one who had power, over his enemies, in loving and forgiving them. Which brings me to the last point. This is not something we can live by ourselves. Before the enemy, all our love dies. But this gospel is a promise – and we have to receive it as such. All we can say is ‘be it unto me, according to your Word’, not, ‘I will try’. Within our suffering, within the darkness, if we make room for God, instead of either responding in violence or resigning in despair, the Spirit will bring about something new. There are no prescriptions. Only the Spirit can teach us to respond rightly in such a situation. It is by the power of the Spirit that Jesus loved on the Cross. And it is the same Spirit he gives generously to those that ask him, in the Eucharist.