19th Feb 23, Seventh of the Year
We never really had pets when we were children but one day my sister decided she’d like a rabbit. After much pestering, my parents caved in and bought her one. I’m sure my sister will have a different recollection of events, but she was scared stiff of this blooming rabbit: never went near the thing. It was a bit flighty to be fair. And then of course, after only a few months I seem to recall, it died. My goodness, there were days of mourning: “I loved that rabbit!” she said. I, your caring parish priest, didn’t really have much sympathy, as you might imagine. As I remember pointing out to my mother at the time, my sister had done nothing to look after that rabbit and now it was dead she kept bursting into tears and was apparently bereft.
What is love? Well, it’s not just a set of emotions. It’s certainly not just a feeling within us we get when we like someone or when we meet someone who shares our view on life; it’s not something we only feel when we look at our parents or at our children. Love is not just sorrow at the death of a rabbit, for whom we’ve shown little care when it was alive. Love has to be a participation in the divine life. Our Lent Tuesday Study group begins next week on Tuesday 28th February from 8pm until 9pm at the back of St Mary’s. We’re going to look for five weeks at the first letter of St John in the New Testament - do come along. In that letter we have a beautiful and succinct definition of love: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them,” (I John 4:16).
When we love we are to participate in the life of God, eternal and true. And just as we are to be grounded constantly in the love of God, so we ought not to be constantly flipping in and out of love for folk. Love can only be permanent. Even friendships which end quite naturally and without animosity with the passing of time are to be a participation in the eternal love of God. In our first reading from the book Leviticus, the third book of the Bible, we are exhorted to be like God and this call finds form in our trying to be holy, to be set apart for Him, without other things determining what we do with our life. This call to be like God is also expressed by the absence of hatred in our heart, in other words by letting our hearts be filled with love, the abiding love of God deep within us.
When we consider the love of God we will be daily amazed at how constant it is -“new every morning,” (Lamentations 3:23) - but we ought also to note how it is revealed in action. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” (I John 4:10). God doesn’t stay in Heaven just thinking nice thoughts about us saying to Himself, “Oh, humanity knows I love it really.” No, He sends His Son, His only Son. St John records in his Gospel: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life,” (3:16). Love leads to action.
These two elements of love - its constancy and its revelation in action - are described in the Gospel we’ve just heard, the last instalment we’ll hear of the Sermon on the Mount. (Feel free to read the rest of it in chapters 6 and 7 in St Matthew’s Gospel.) Jesus says “the Father causes His sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and His rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike.” Constant and revealed in action. And this teaching is given in preparation for the hugely demanding commandment: “Love your enemies.”
So, what is love? Constant and grounded in action, and extends even to enemies. St Thomas Aquinas gives us a further definition of love to help us I believe in this love of enemy: love is “to choose and will the good of the other.” This is a very helpful definition, especially when we come to consider the forgiveness we should give to those who have done wrong to us. People often ask me how to forgive. Well, remember, my friends, that we don’t have to forget! The saying “forgive and forget” is not Christian. A call to amnesia of wrongs is delusion and not grounded in truth. Jesus is the Truth and so simply forgetting past wrongs cannot be God’s way. Hopefully with time the pain of remembering will pass though. In terms of forgiving we have to remember that we still have to love the person even though they have wronged us. It will almost certainly be love expressed in a different way but love it must still be. And that’s where this definition of love is so helpful for when we can pray honestly and sincerely that the person who has hurt us be well and flourishing: when we “choose and will their good” we know we have forgiven them. Until then it is best to honest to God in prayer - especially because He knows everything anyway - and say that we know we ought to forgive so-and-so and would be glad to have the the grace to be able to do it.
In loving our enemy there can be no room for vengeance. “They took my apple so I’m going to tread on their toy.” Jesus quotes in today’s Gospel, “You have learnt how it was said: ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’” This saying is from Exodus 21:24, sometimes referred to as the Lex Talionis. It could be written off as permitting vengeance but it’s often said the thinking behind it was actually to prevent escalation. We see something similar in the account of the first murder in Genesis 4 where Cain kills Abel. Cain has a mark placed on him so no one kills him. Again, God does not want an escalation of violence. The temptation is that someone damages our car and we want to set fire to theirs: things can only get worse and worse in that mindset.
But Jesus, who is the fulfilment of everyone’s hopes and fears, reveals the true meaning of the Law, that we are to just keep on giving. “If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well.” In a world where it was assumed everyone was right handed this saying is not quite so simple for a right handed person would naturally hit someone on the lift cheek. As if this saying of our Lord was not bad enough then, the fact that he says offer the left cheek after you’ve been slapped on the right means the second beating is going to hurt more than the first because it would have been done with the assumed stronger arm.
St Augustine of Hippo in reading this passage and its high call to godly living considers our Lord: “The Lord was ready not only to be smitten on the other cheek for the salvation of men, but to be crucified with His whole body.” The Lord willingly lays down His life, yet we worry about a little bit of our dignity. The extent of God’s love is beyond measure. There’s a great hymn for Lent which we’ll sing at various points and which I often give as a penance at the end of a Confession i.e. that thing we say to show our resolve not to sin again. The hymn is Fr Faber’s “It is a thing most wonderful” and there’s these two verses especially: “But even could I see Him die, I could but see a little part of that great love which like a fire, is always burning in His heart. It is most wonderful to know His love for me so free and sure; but ’tis more wonderful to see my love for Him so faint and poor.” It’s an odd proposal - to be amazed at how little we love the Lord - but it is good for us to remember. Too often we only impress ourselves by saying “Oh, aren’t I good? I love God so much.” It’s pride.
One commentator on this passage of St Matthew 5 also observes that Jesus lives out the loving of His enemy by treating Judas no differently to the other disciples. The Gospel writers emphasise that Jesus knows Judas is going to betray Him (St Matthew 26:21) but he is still not excluded from the Last Supper. We therefore have to be very careful about excluding folk from our presence and denying them basic acts of love, such as kindness, being civil to them, ensuring their basic welfare when it is easily in our power to do so. This will enable us to be better followers of another of the Lord’s commands we hear in today’s Gospel: “If anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him.” When someone asks us to do something and we do it there’s always the danger that we’re doing it for an easy life, because we feel we ought to, we don’t want to appear miserly and so on. But if we don’t just do what they ask but go the extra mile none of that can be in our hearts, it can only be driven by the extraordinary love we see in Jesus Christ.
I want to finish by just drawing together the obligation to love ourselves which Fr Beer mentioned last Sunday and this call to the extra mile. Lots of people will attest rather blandly that they know how much God loves them. And He does. But this love is never an excuse not for a change in us. So often when folk say, “God loves me as I am,” it means “I don’t have to change at all, I don’t have to do anything in response to that love.” Whereas awareness of God’s love can only lead us to love Him. And loving God will mean we will be always wanting to be changed by His grace so we can love Him better and more faithfully live up to His call. Lent, which begins on Wednesday, gives us such an opportunity, my friends. Yes, God loves us as we are, but He also loves us so much that He wants us to be better than we are currently, just as any parent does his or her child.
“God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.” Love is a constant participation in God, who never changes. It is expressed in action. It includes the radical and reckless nature of the love we see God has for us sinners. So we will love our enemies, we will go the extra mile, we will seek constantly be better in doing what God calls us to say and do. May this love fill our hearts and may we share it with a fearful world, all whom we meet this week.