February 21, 2020

Christ the Cornerstone

Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“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, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?” (Mt 5:43–46).

The Gospel reading for this weekend, the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, presents us with one of Jesus’ most challenging statements: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). We’re familiar with this saying because we’ve read it or heard it so many times. But how seriously do we take it?

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, an enemy is “a person who hates another, and wishes or tries to injure him; a person hostile to an idea or cause; an adversary or foe.” What makes someone an enemy is the degree of hatred or hostility that accompanies his or her opposition or hostility toward an individual, a group or even an entire nation or way of life.

Throughout history, the Jewish people have been subjected to extreme hatred and hostility. At the time Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” the Romans were the enemy, but they were not the first, or the last, in a long line of anti-Semitic haters who have persecuted the Jews.

Unfortunately, that line extends to our present day and even to our own communities. That fact alone makes Jesus’ words challenging for us. He is speaking to us directly, telling us not to hate anyone, but also telling us that we must love, and pray for, anyone who hates us.

Most of us don’t have readily identifiable enemies. We may have people who don’t like us, or who strongly disagree with us, but are these really our enemies?

We don’t have to look very far to see hateful, hostile words spoken against political figures or ways of thinking and acting that others despise. Social media is filled with hate speech, and the rest of the news and entertainment media seem to encourage division and hostility among people who are on opposing sides of moral or political positions. This is the complete opposite of Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

As the first reading for next Sunday’s Mass (Lv 19:1-2, 17-18) makes clear, Jesus’ words are grounded in the Jewish Scriptures:

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lv 19:17-18).

The leaders of the long suffering, persecuted and hated Jewish people had learned the hard way that as tempting as it may be to nourish grudges and take revenge, that is not the way to happiness or peace.

Still, there were those in Jesus’ day who had a hard time accepting this. They were looking for a Messiah who would avenge their wrongs and punish their persecutors. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” might be OK for those closest to us (our own kind), they would say, but it surely doesn’t apply to our sworn enemies!

In the second reading for this Sunday (1 Cor 3:16–23), St. Paul admonishes us:

“Let no one deceive himself.
If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise.
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God” (1 Cor 3:18-19).

Hatred and hostility are foolish in the eyes of God. They cause bitter division and make healing extremely difficult. As strange as it may seem to the wisdom of this world, the only way to make genuine peace among those who are deeply divided is to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

This paradoxical truth applies to small divisions as well as large ones. It applies to married couples and families as well as to neighbors and fellow citizens. It applies to nations and religions that don’t agree on matters of policy or principle. And it certainly applies to people who are tempted to give in to the sins of racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, homophobia or any other form of blind hatred and hostility toward others.

Let’s pray for the wisdom and the courage to take Jesus’ words seriously. Let’s love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. †

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