7th of the Year, 20 Feb 22
Do you have any enemies? I suspect you think - pretty much as I do - that you don’t. There might be particular people in our lives we struggle to love, as I was talking about two weeks ago, and we have to love them: “love you neighbour.” What’s an enemy? Well, we might think of big historical conflicts, the Allies versus the Nazis in World War II, the Brits versus the Vikings centuries before that. They were our enemies.
An enemy is someone who wills our harm and may even carry it out. We need to ponder that definition a bit more, I think. An enemy isn’t just someone who comes up and punches us on the nose, though that would certainly be one sign: an enemy won’t work towards our flourishing when it is within their power to do so. The person who doesn’t help when we’ve fallen over on the bus is an enmity within us, has overthrown something of the order of the world God has made where we are to live in love and charity with each other. When people make decisions that threaten the life of the Church they are living at enmity with us.
This concept of enmity comes early on in the Scriptures and is a consequence of sin. God says to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers,” (Genesis 3:15). Humanity’s relationship with the world is altered by what theologians call the Fall, our first sin. This sentiment is repeated after the first murder when God challenges Cain and says, “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10). The world’s problems of hunger and climate concerns find their origin in our sinfulness. The answer is to use less energy and to share the world’s resources, yes; but the problems are only fully solved when we turn to God and are not at war with Him anymore.
So, we might not think we have enemies but we cannot deny we are at enmity with others, for we fail to love, we fail to seek the flourishing of others, we fail to awaken within others the gift of faith in Christ. I’m also incredibly humbled when I speak to those whose jobs and domestic duties involve them being hurt by others. Some of us who care for those with particular health problems are assaulted by them. They are clearly called to love those who do them harm. But none of us must think that any of the Lord’s commandments do not apply to us; so it must be true when He says we must ‘love our enemies’ that we have enemies to love. Jesus says of His own mission that those who are not for Him are against Him: those who do not work for our flourishing are at enmity with us and vice versa. Even when we are apathetic or too lazy to love, we are at enmity with others.
In our first reading, we have the latest episode of the psycho-drama between King Saul and the young David. Saul has tried to kill David and David has had opportunities to kill Saul. They’re clearly enemies. David doesn’t take the opportunity we heard described to kill Saul, despite the urging on by Abishai. We could be a bit cynical and say that it was out of self-interest that he says, “who can lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed,” for David knew he would one day be that anointed one, the King. Similarly did Queen Elizabeth I struggle with the decision to sign the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots, for fear it set a precedent that it was alright to bump off a monarch, anointed by God. David recognises in Saul a dignity and this must be our approach to our enemies and those with whom we disagree: all men and women are made in the image of God; those reborn in the waters of the font are our brothers and sisters, fellow children of the Father.
What does this loving our enemies look like? Our Lord gives us some concrete examples: turning the other cheek so we don’t stand on our own dignity when it comes to helping others: “Well, I’m not doing that for him after what he did to me.” Our Lord’s words in the Gospel quickly turn to giving things to our enemies. A perspective on our obligations must be maintained. Some things we will continue to be obliged to give our enemies because we are required to love them: “Give to anyone who asks you.” But we mustn’t confuse this with something daft like allowing someone unsuitable to look after our children just because the person asked to do it. The Commandments are to unlock the potential within individuals due to the graces God has given them.
The example par excellence for the Saints commenting on this passage is the death of St Stephen, whose feast day the Church keeps on 26th December each year, as we ponder the coming to earth of God-made-visible. Stephen is one of the first men to be ordained deacon by the Apostles (Acts 6:5). He stirs up trouble following a speech he makes when he accuses the Council in Jerusalem of killing and betraying the Lord’s Righteous One, as the prophets had of old (Acts 7:51-53). They stone him and Stephen becomes the first Christian martyr, dying for his faith in Jesus Christ. We’re told St Stephen prays as the stones are thrown, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” (Acts 7:60). He has the life of Jesus at work in Him so perfectly that he can imitate the Saviour by showing kindness and mercy even to those who kill him.
We can all pray for our enemies, for those who would do little to benefit us. When we pray for someone we are committing them to the blessings of God, that His beautiful and glorious will for them might be accomplished. God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done in the life of so-and-so. Ultimately God’s will is salvation for all people, that we might see Him face to face in Heaven and discover the true joy of those worship Him day and night. When we pray for folk, whether we find it easy to love them or not, we are expressing the hope that they will be in Heaven.
Our Lord goes on to give another quality of loving our enmities: not judging. Here too we need to be think what judging means. Often we say something like “It’s not for me to judge,” when it comes to people’s behaviour and we believe ourselves to be virtuous in doing so. However, when our Lord comes as Judge He is not just working out whether something is wrong or not, that would be a slightly pointless exercise at the end of the world as time’s up by then. No, when the Lord returns He is saying what are the consequences of our actions, some of which will have been good and others sinful. As Judge He pronounces what our sentence is, Heaven or Hell. If we were to be judging others we would be saying that person is going to Heaven and that person is going to Hell and that would be very wrong indeed.
However, it is perfectly reasonable to think about what other people do with their lives and come to a conclusion as to whether they are morally right or not. This is what we do as we ponder the lives of the Saints for our own improvement, finding in them holes and the struggle with sin. So, our duty to love others will mean sometimes we say to them you’re going out with the wrong person, or you’ve really got your priorities wrong on this issue, or you’re doing too much of this. This gift of discernment will be needed if we are to heed our Lord’s exhortation “to grant pardon.” We can only pardon that which we and the person who has offended us both know to be wrong. An awareness of sin is needed so we can then be contrite and indeed to be forgiven.
Loving our enemies is a recognition of our poverty, not thinking about our entitlements and recognising that we will have hurt others through our journey, that we need forgiveness and have put ourselves at enmity with God. Of course, if we say we have no enemies, it is much easier for us to deceive ourselves and thinking we have never wronged anyone. St Therese of Lisieux encourages us with these words: “If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself you will be to Jesus a pleasant place of shelter; you will suffer, of course, for you will be outside the door of your own home; but have no hear, the poorer you are, the more Jesus will love you.” Loving our enemies grounds us in our poverty and will place us in difficult places, but there as our corners are knocked off we become more pleasing in the eyes of our sweet Saviour.
The week before last we celebrated St Josephine Bakhita. Having been enslaved when she was young she was eventually taken in by a Christian family and liberated. She reflected that to some extent had she not been a slave she would probably never have come to know Christ. Her body bore scars of the torture and beatings she had suffered from her various “owners.” Yet her heart was full of forgiveness. She said: “If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and religious today.” In realising her poverty, she could be filled with the riches of Jesus our Saviour and share those treasures with others, even those who had done her harm.
So, whether we like to admit or not, we are living in enmity with others and we need to love them because we are living in the shadow of the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. St Paul reflects that Christ’s coming ends division and creates a new humanity, “having broken down the dividing wall, that is enmity between us,” (Ephesians 2:14). So, let be honest with ourselves about those with whom we living in enmity and - with the example of our Lord and the Saints - strive to love them.