In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us what seems like an impossible instruction: “To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” And, as Pope Francis tells us in the Spiritual Reflection, this word of Jesus “is not optional, it is a command.”
It is quite possible for us to read this Gospel and then move on without taking it deeply to heart. We might think to ourselves, I love the people around me. I try to do good to those I meet, and I pray for people in need. So I’m doing what Jesus says. But when we think of those for whom we pray, and to whom we do good, most likely we are thinking of people we care about – our family members or co-workers. Jesus tells us that we cannot be satisfied with doing good to those who do good to us: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same.”
If we really want to take Jesus’ command to heart, we must include the person who has truly done us harm, someone who hates us or curses us, someone who mistreats us or has done so in the past. Can we pray for such people? Can we ask God to bless them? Can we even make hard sacrifices for their good? This is what Jesus is commanding us to do, as he tells us in the Gospel Acclamation: “Love one another as I have loved you.” How has Jesus loved us? It is on display on every crucifix: he laid down his very life for us.
Perhaps we can find a way to forgive someone who has done us serious harm. Perhaps we can even bring ourselves to ask God to bless that person. But can we imagine suffering and dying a horrific death as a sacrificial offering to reconcile that person to the Father? No, this is impossible. It is too much to ask, something beyond human capacity. We should pause and be clear about this – what Jesus is asking us is not possible for us unaided. Of ourselves, we cannot love like this.
Most fortunately, as Pope Francis assures us, Jesus “is well aware that loving enemies exceeds our possibilities, but this is why he became man: not to leave us as we are, but to transform us into men and women capable of a greater love, that of his Father and ours. This is the love that Jesus gives to those who ‘hear him.’ Thus it becomes possible!”
We can see the importance of our daily prayer. As we ponder God’s word each day, allowing it to sink deeply into our hearts and take root, and as we strive to put that word into practice, God is able to transform us, by the power of his word, into the very likeness of Jesus himself. This is what it means for us to “hear” Jesus’ words. Then we are able to love as he loves.
St. Paul describes this process in the second reading: “As was the earthly one [Adam], so also are the earthly, and as is the heavenly one [Jesus], so also are the heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.” As we “hear” Jesus’ words each day we gradually take on his image, the image of “the heavenly one,” by the grace of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We can see an example of the kind of love to which we are called in the first reading. King Saul is jealous of David because of the attention David has been getting and his success in battle, so Saul has set out to kill David. David has fled from Saul and is in hiding, while Saul has gathered his army to search for him. In this passage, David finds Saul’s camp and sneaks into the camp at night. He finds everyone asleep and is even able to come right into Saul’s presence. David’s companion urges him to take this opportunity to kill Saul. He points to Saul’s own spear, which is by his side, and asks that he be allowed to kill Saul with it. If we are familiar with this story, we remember that a short time before, Saul had hurled this very spear at David, in an attempt to kill him (cf. 1Sm 19:10). Now David has this spear in hand, and Saul is defenseless before him. But David chooses to have mercy on Saul and spare his life.
Of course, Jesus’ mercy for us goes far beyond the mercy which David showed to Saul. Jesus found us helpless in our weakness and sin, and he had the power to condemn us forever. But instead of striking us down for our offenses against the Father, he offered himself in sacrifice, even allowing his own side to be pierced with a spear so that the mercy of God could flow out in the form of blood and water, as we see in the image of Divine Mercy.
We are in awe of such merciful love! And we are grateful beyond measure that God promises to transform our own hearts so that we may become capable of such love. Let us then take up the prayer of Pope Francis, asking God to do this great work in us: “May the Virgin Mary help us to let our heart be touched by this holy word of Jesus, burning like fire, that it may transform us and make us able to do good without reciprocation, doing good without reciprocation, witnessing everywhere to the victory of love.”
Why do I find it almost impossible to bless and pray for those who curse, hate, or mistreat me? How has pondering the word daily transformed me? When someone harms me, how do I react exteriorly and interiorly?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.