7th Sunday of the Year, Year C

In today’s gospel, Jesus presents to us one of the most basic qualities that should characterise a Christian. It is also one of the most demanding qualities, and probably one which we rarely see. He tells us that if we are truly to be his disciples we must love our enemies. In last Sunday’s gospel he describes our enemies as those who hate us, drive us out, abuse us and denounce us as criminals. We are to love such people.

Jesus is not talking about love in the sense of a passionate longing or sexual desire. Nor is he talking about the kind of love which we experience for those we relate to as family. He does not ask us to treat our enemies as friends. When he asks us to love our enemies, he asks us to ‘do good to those who hate us’. We are to ‘call down God’s blessing on those who curse us’. We are to ‘take those who treat us badly into our heart, and to hold them up to God in prayer’. When we offer them our cheek, as many cultures do by way of courteous greeting, and they reject us, Jesus tells us not to give up on them but to carry the greeting through by offering them the other cheek. This is an image, obviously, but it powerfully conveys the idea of not giving up on looking for ways of reaching out to those who express enmity towards us.

We all know what our natural tendency is. We are strongly tempted to retaliate and to treat them the way they treat us. All this does is add to the mess, and create more reasons for enmity, and the cycle of hurt just goes on and on. Or, if we don’t retaliate directly, we are tempted to put them down in our hearts, and in conversation with others; or just ignore them.

Jesus cuts right across all these natural responses and tells us to love them. It is not enough even to resist doing evil to them. We are to make a choice and decide to do good to them. This affects the way we think about them, the way we speak about them, and the way we act towards them.

Good psychological theory as well as experience tells us that a love response is the most liberating response, for them, and also for us. Otherwise those who treat us badly are calling the tune. They are not only hurting us by their behaviour, they are controlling our feelings and thoughts and responses as well. We are giving them too much power over us and locking ourselves into a cycle of negative behaviour.

But how do we overcome our natural tendencies and respond with this kind of generous love to people who are hurting us and who show no signs of letting up?

Jesus invites his disciples to be ‘sons of the Most High’. This is not an example of the use of male language to cover both male and female. It is an invitation to be ‘children of God’, but it is more than that. It is an invitation to all of us, men and women alike, to identify with Jesus himself, the Son of God. The only way to experience the freedom and the grace of loving our enemies is to let our own ego go and accept the Spirit of Jesus into our hearts. The more we can say with Saint Paul: ‘I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me’(Galatians 2:19), the more our hearts will be free to love even those who seem determined to hurt us.

In issuing this challenge, Jesus gives us his clearest insight into the way he understands God. He tells us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us and to hold up to God those who treat us badly, because that is the way God treats such people. God loves those who oppose him. God does good to those who hate him. God showers his blessings ‘a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over’ into the lap of those who curse him. God holds close to his heart those who treat him badly.

In spite of this steadfast love and merciful compassion of God, we are, of course, free to reject God’s love. Love cannot intrude or force its way. God’s love does not necessarily succeed in winning us over, and since love is only experienced as love when it is received, people may decide to remain obstinate in rejecting God. It can be the same with us. Loving our enemies may not change them. But it is the only response that may, and we are to persevere in love, as Jesus did, because this is the response of God in whose image we are made. As Paul tells us: ‘We may be faithless, but he remains faithful’(2 Timothy 2:13).

Jesus sums up this teaching in one of the most beautiful statements of the gospel: ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate’(Luke 6:36). This is also the central theme of today’s Responsorial Psalm. The psalmist cannot hold in his joy as he sings: ‘My soul, give thanks to the Lord, all my being bless his holy name. My soul, give thanks to the Lord and never forget all his blessings.’ The psalm goes on to name some of these blessings, some of the ways in which God shows his compassion:

1. ‘It is he who forgives all your guilt’. It requires a lot of faith and trust to believe this, but this is the God in whom we have been taught to believe. It is true that actual forgiveness happens only when we turn to God in sorrow. But we can turn to God in sorrow only because we know that he will not refuse us. Our very turning to him is in response to grace. It is the same with those who do us harm. Forgiveness and reconciliation is dependent upon their realising and admitting that they are doing wrong. Jesus is not asking us to bring about reconciliation. That is something which we cannot do on our own. But he is asking us to do what God does: not to harden our hearts against those who are hurting us, and to continue to offer forgiveness unconditionally. Our enemies may not respond, but we are posing no barrier to their acceptance, should they so choose.

2. ‘It is he who heals every one of your ills’. It is an act of faith to trust that God’s love is offering us healing in the most effective and delicately caring way. It often does not feel like that. There is the question of readiness on our part, but there is also the need for God’s love to purify and refine our souls. Pruning must go on, and we don’t enjoy it - at least not till the pruning is complete and the new crop of fruit appears on the branches. It is a matter of trust, but Jesus calls us to trust God in this way. Similarly, those who are abusing or deriding us are suffering in ways which we do not know and of which they are probably unaware. They need healing. If we respond by rejecting them, we are just adding to the wounds because of which they are behaving so badly. They may not accept our love, but at least let us keep it there in the hope that one day they may accept it and experience healing.

3. ‘It is he who redeems your life from the grave’. God has placed in all of us a longing for life, and his offer of eternal life of communion in love with Him remains open for ever. We can obstinately refuse it, and we may even do so eternally, but our refusal does not change God’s offer.

In these and other ways, today’s psalm reminds us of the fact that God ‘surrounds us with love and compassion’. The word used for compassion throughout this psalm is the same word as that used by Jesus in today’s gospel. In Hebrew and in Jesus’ own language (Aramaic), it comes from the word for ‘womb’. While most of the images for God found in the Bible are male images like King, Lord, Father and Husband, the authors know that these are only images which imperfectly express the wonderful reality of God. God is as much Queen as King, as much Lady as Lord, as much Mother as Father, and as much Bride as Bridegroom. Today, more than ever before, it is important that we recognise this and nourish our imagination and our souls on all the various dimensions of love that image God. It is especially important that we recapture the feminine in God.

Today’s Gospel is a perfect example of this. Jesus likens God to a Father who loves us the way a Mother loves the child in her womb. Even when we are in sin, even when we are opposing God, she takes us into her heart, into her womb, and holds us there, offering us forgiveness, healing and liberation from whatever it is that is causing us to behave in ways that are so dysfunctional. Jesus invites us to do the same with those who hate, deride and abuse us. God knows, it is not in any way easy, but Jesus tells us to take those persons into our hearts, hold them there, and call down upon them God’s gracious forgiveness and healing, while remaining ready to do good to them to the extent that they allow this.

The key to this, of course, is to believe in the compassion which God our Mother has for us. Could I suggest that you take some time today to reflect upon the sentiments expressed in today’s psalm (It is numbered Psalm 103 in your Bibles), and to join the psalmist in praying: ‘Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name’(Psalm 103:1). Commenting on this prayer, Saint Augustine writes: ‘God has ears; the heart has a voice … Your voice cries out if someone is listening, your voice remains silent if no one hears you. In your heart there is always someone who is listening to you. At times we sing, at times we are silent. But can your heart remain silent and not praise God? The voice may sometimes cry out and sometimes not, but the voice of the heart need never be silent.’

This constant prayer of gratitude rising from the heart is the best way to grow in the sentiments of the heart of Jesus and learn, like him, to respond in love always, even to those who continue to reject us.