In the Book of Genesis, we read that God created human beings to be like himself: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” (Gen 1:27). So we were created to be like God. But what does it mean to be “like God”? John gives us an answer in his First Letter: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 Jn 4:16). We were created to love. Jesus summed this up in his reply to the question about the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…. You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39). The supreme example of what this love looks like is Jesus himself stretched out on the Cross, giving his life to reconcile us with the Father. He shows us what it means to love, what it means to be “like God,” as we were created to be.
Returning to the Book of Genesis, however, we see the intrusion of another idea of what it means to be “like God.” In the garden, the serpent tempted Eve, urging her to eat the forbidden fruit: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). This represents the temptation to try to be “like God,” not by giving ourselves in love, but by taking power and glory for ourselves, deciding for ourselves what is good and evil. The result of choosing sin was disastrous, as we see in the lives of Adam and Eve and in their children. Their first child, Cain, saw Abel not as a brother to love but as a competitor for God’s favor, and thus as an enemy to be eliminated.
Sadly, sin continues to show its effects on everyone in the world. As St. Paul says in today’s passage from his Letter to the Corinthians, “We have borne the image of the earthly one” – that is, Adam. We too have listened to the lies of the serpent, who has encouraged us to distrust God and to seek to make ourselves “like God” by deciding for ourselves what is good and evil. If someone seems to be surpassing us, or favored over us, or is in the way of something we want, then, like Cain, we are quick to become angry, jealous, envious, vengeful. Especially if someone has hurt us or opposed us, we see him or her as an enemy. The serpent continues to lie to us, encouraging us to see life as a matter of competition with others, where we can only advance if we are defeating someone else.
Jesus in the Gospel calls us back to the original plan of God, to be like God by learning to love as he loves. He teaches us that we are to love everyone, even our enemies, for that is what God himself does: “Love your enemies and do good to them… then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” No amount of power, glory or wealth makes us one bit more like God. We are like God in the measure that we love.
We have another version of Jesus’ commandment to love in the Gospel Acclamation: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus loves us with no limits, giving everything he possesses, even his very life, for us. He reveals the merciful love of the Father for us, his children – the same love we find expressed in today’s psalm: “The Lord is kind and merciful.” “Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he requite us according to our crimes.” “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.” God treats us as his own dear children, going out of his way to reconcile us to himself – even when we are acting as his enemies by sinning against him.
We have a beautiful calling – to be like God by loving as he loves! But is it practical, or even possible, to love like this? When we encounter an “enemy,” our hearts are more likely to react like David’s servant Abishai in the first reading, who saw what he thought was a God-given opportunity to kill Saul: “God has delivered your enemy into your grasp this day. Let me nail him to the ground with one thrust of the spear!” When someone has hurt us in some way, it seems quite “natural” for us to want to take vengeance! How can we be expected to love them?
The answer is given to us by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in this week’s Spiritual Reflection. The love which we are called to is not a product of our own effort. It is “a love that does not rely ultimately on human resources but is a gift of God which is obtained by trusting solely and unreservedly in his merciful goodness.” Left to ourselves we are unable to love our enemies, but we believe that the God who calls us to love will also give us the grace to be able to love. David gives us an example in the first reading. He sees Saul, who is trying to kill him, not as an enemy at all, but as “the Lord’s anointed.” David sees, in a sense, with God’s eyes, not his own. Such love is not our personal achievement. We open ourselves to be filled with the Spirit of God, who can and will love in us if we allow him. Then by God’s grace, as Paul says, “we shall … bear the image of the heavenly one” – Jesus Christ.
We have no better teacher on how to open ourselves generously to God’s work in us than our heavenly Mother. Benedict XVI urges us: “Let us ask the Virgin Mary, docile disciple of the Redeemer, who helps us to allow ourselves to be won over without reserve by that love, to learn to love as he loved us, to be merciful as Our Father in Heaven is merciful.”
When do I seek to be like God for my own glory? How can I learn to imitate God’s love for all people? What is my response when someone hurts me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.