FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 7th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 23, 2020:
One of the single most powerful spiritual moments of my life happened on September 12, 2001. We all remember the tragic events of the day prior as our nation was brutally attacked and more than 3,000 innocent people lost their lives. It was a moment unlike anything that most Americans had ever experienced as the occasions have been very few that we have ever been attacked on our own soil. But, it was the next morning that struck me in a powerful way. I was a new priest, just a week shy of my first anniversary of ordination, and people were flooding to the Church for prayer and to find some solace and hope in the aftermath of war. As I sat in prayer that morning, getting ready to offer some words of spiritual consolation, my heart nearly stopped as I read the words of the Gospel on that day. The Gospel passage that the liturgy of the Church had to offer us on September 12th was this, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.”
I don’t know that there were ever a more difficult time to hear those words; but also I do know that it was the most important time to hear them. As our hearts were full of sorrow, as well as anger, and confusion, and perhaps even a desire for vengeance – God had His most powerful message ready for us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In other words, God was saying very simply and powerfully to our hearts – don’t forget who you are. In the midst of this tragedy, do not let your hearts be filled with anger and hate – but remember who you are; remember what it means to follow My Son. I have never forgotten that moment or the impact that those words had on my heart that day. And, there was no coincidence in those words. In fact, just another day later was the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and then the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. God had His message ready for us in those days. “I love you, I am with you, do not let your hearts be turned to hate. Conquer this darkness with the light of My Son.”
Today’s Gospel message to love our enemies can be one of the most difficult parts of the Gospel for us to embrace. It is contrary to our human nature, contrary to what the world tells us. Many of us hear these words with some doubts – are we really meant to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, give without expecting repayment, to not judge people, to pray for those who are unkind to us? It would be difficult to find another passage in the Gospel that is more at odds with our world’s normal way of behaving. If we turn the other check, after all, won’t we just get hit on that one too?
But, at the same time, this passage states more clearly than just about any other exactly how we are different from the world as believers in Jesus. Our reading from Leviticus today said it well, “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart…Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Radical, constant, unrelenting love is the unique and particular call of all of us who were baptized in Jesus Christ.
Jesus reminds us to stop wasting energy holding on to past hurts, trying to settle old scores, even handing down grudges from one generation to the next. Just think, how many of us are angry with someone because of the way they treated us, something they said to us, or something they said about us – a day ago, a week ago, a month ago, even years ago? As Christians, we are not called to anger, judgment and resentment. We are called to love – always, everywhere, everyone, with no conditions or exceptions. And not a superficial kind of love; not a huggy-feely love, not an all-accepting generic love that fails to ask anything of us or the other. Jesus inaugurates a new kind of love – one that is so profound, so deep that it leads Him to love His enemies all the way to the Cross for us; a love so powerful that it is transformative of not only us as individuals, but even of the whole world. Jesus hanging on that cross – specifically for you, for me – is the greatest symbol of love that has ever existed. He did that for you because he loves you.
We love our enemies because when we love Jesus, everyone is within our circle of love – even our enemies. No one is excluded; no one is shut out. If Christianity is to ever change our world it will only be accomplished by the noticeably different behavior of Christians. In this world that is so full of hate, anger, and division, do we stand out in contrast as recognizably different; to paraphrase the hymn, “Will they know that we are Christians by our love”?
Jesus calls us to rise above the pettiness of the world. So, the one who was struck on the cheek should rise above the attack or insult and not respond in kind. The one who lost the tunic relinquishes even the cloak, not to be outdone in generosity. It is a way of saying: I will undo your violence toward me with generosity, goodness, kindness, mercy and compassion. I will erase your evil with my constant acts of goodness. The insight and brilliance of Jesus is to recognize that the only real antidote to the violence and evil in our world is the love, forgiveness and the mercy of God – as shown to the world by you and by me. We are not called to overlook the evils in our world, but to overwhelm the evil in our world with our unrelenting acts of goodness, kindness, and holiness.
I like to say that there are no asterisks in the Bible. After Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” There isn’t an asterisk that says, “See below: Unless your enemy is really mean; or really deserves it.” Our Lord and Savior says simply, “Love, and bless, and forgive, and pray.” This is a Christian heroism that does not merely respond to evil in the world, but transforms it – through Christ – into goodness and holiness. But it takes real courage to practice it. It is not easy. But if we could be called to it on September 12, 2001; surely we can be called to it today. This is the only way that the Kingdom of God will ever reach its fulfillment; if it begins in the converted hearts of believers.
Today, Jesus is urging you and me to join Him again on a journey. We’ve all come a certain distance and now He wants us to move just a little more. Can we give a little more to those in need, forgive a little more those who hurt us, love a little more even those who have not earned it? He says today, “You have followed me this far; and now join me for the extra mile – it will make all the difference.”
Love, give, pray, forgive – even just a little more; and you will transform first your soul and then, the world.
May the Lord give you peace.