Father Donald Senior, CP

Feb. 23: Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Love changes everything

Lv 19:1-2, 17-18; Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48

Today is the last Sunday before Lent. Both Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday happen this week, and we will not return to Ordinary Time until after the Easter season at the beginning of the summer. 

The Scripture readings for this Sunday are particularly striking. It’s as if our Lectionary saved the good wine for last, with its focus on what is considered a singular teaching of Jesus: “Love your enemies.”  

Last week we listened to a powerful segment of the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. The Jewish-Christian evangelist underscores both the continuity and the different accent between the powerful ethical teaching of Judaism and Jesus’ own words: “You have heard it said … but I say to you ….” 

What we hear in today’s Gospel selection is the climactic point of that teaching. The law of Moses had counseled “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” which is a formula meant to restrain the impulse for excessive retribution. But the teaching of Jesus intensifies that ethical demand. 

One should not meet violence with violence or revenge with revenge, no matter how strong the urge to do so. “Offer no resistance to one who is evil”; “Turn the other cheek”; “Walk the extra mile.” The follower of Jesus is urged to break the chain of violence and open a path to reconciliation.

Even more astounding is the final contrast statement. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” 

Through the centuries, commentators on Matthew’s Gospel have emphasized the singular nature of Jesus’ teaching here. No exact parallel to the call to “love your enemies” exists in ancient literature. The injunction to love your neighbor is, in fact, a quotation from Leviticus 19, a passage that forms the first reading for today. 

The phrase “hate your enemy” is not found in the Old Testament, but reflects a defensive attitude echoed in some Jewish writings from the first century, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Loving those close to us who are part of our own people but being wary of outsiders who wish us harm was an understandable attitude at a time when Jesus’ contemporaries were under the thumb of the Romans. It is now, too.

However, here again the teaching of Jesus moves to a new and intense level. We are called to love an enemy, as seemingly impossible as that may be. The motivation Jesus offers for this ethical ideal is crucial. By striving to love an enemy, we act as the daughters and sons of God, “who makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” God’s love is not simply reciprocal, that is, loving those who love you. God loves us first and unconditionally before we do anything to deserve it. 

This is the point of Jesus’ teaching, and it echoes an astounding conviction of the Bible cited in this Sunday’s first reading: “The Lord said to Moses … Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” We must learn to put aside enmity, resist the impulse for retaliation and seek, with all our might, to reconcile and heal.

These expressions of love make us like God, who is love. Jesus drives this message home in the last line of today’s Gospel: “So be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Greek word for “perfect” used here is “teleios,” which literally means to be complete. We are to measure our completion as human beings and followers of Jesus by our capacity to love others fully, as God loves us.

Strangely, as I thought about this challenging and infinitely beautiful teaching of Jesus, the words of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular song from the musical “Aspects of Love” came to mind: “Love, love changes everything. Hands and faces, earth and sky. Love, love changes everything. How you live and how you die.” 


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