Scriptural reflection based on the mass readings of Tuesday, June 15, 2021 — eleventh week of ordinary time.
Today is a momentous day for California. After fifteen months or so, the state reopened today and officials have removed a majority of the restrictions that were put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19. While this state and others around the country are opening back up, we cannot forget that the entire world has suffered, and for most of the world, still suffering, incredible amounts of loss. There has been loss of friends, family, and colleagues, loss of income, loss of education, loss of options, loss of freedom, loss of hugs and handshakes, loss of community.
The pandemic has affected us all in some way – physically, mentally, and even spiritually. The stress that already existed in society were intensified by fear and frustration. Divides became wider and new fault lines showed themselves. Without the usual outlets to let off steam, people’s patience has been running thin. The rates of domestic violence, race-based violence, and gun violence are higher than pre-pandemic times. People needed scapegoats to blame for the virus and the painful effects of it. Suddenly, what were small irritations have become large problems. And enemies were made.
Who are the enemies? For some it could be someone who holds a different understanding than our own on religion, politics, gender equality, medical choices, race, immigration, climate change, or what it means to be a patriot. For others it’s people who have a different approach to policies reacting and responding to the pandemic.
In the past two weeks we’ve been making our way through the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which is the Sermon on the Mount. We began with the Beatitudes – “blessed are they…” Today is the last part of the Sermon on the Mount. We hear Jesus recall what people would have been familiar with – that is, “you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But today, Jesus is being counter-cultural and is giving us a tall order – to “love your enemies and to pray for those who persecute you.” Love your enemy, he says. We too easily throw that phrase around without realizing the gravity of what Jesus is calling us to do. It seems like an impossible ask! Of course, the gospel writer, Matthew, saved the most challenging part of the sermon for last. And it so happened to fall on the state’s reopening day. A turning point for renewed hope and new opportunities.
Are we really supposed to love our enemy with sincerity? Are we really supposed to pray for those who are working against us? Those who want us to fail? Even those who hate us? Or those who would cause us harm? Them, too? Yes!
This doesn’t mean that we don’t stand up for what’s right. But often times, in struggling for justice we retreat to our like-minded camps and echo chambers. I understand that there is safety when we surround ourselves with people who are on the same page as us, who think similarly as we do. Jesus is cautioning us about this. He says that extending love to those who love us is what the tax collectors do. They are friendly to who pay taxes and hound those who are unable or unwilling to pay. And he says that engaging with only our friends and allies are what the pagans do. It’s natural to be inclined toward others who are friendly toward us. But, if we only love those who love us back… or to love those who have been useful to us in accomplishing our own individual success, then how are we different than the rest of the world?
As people of faith, we are reminded that God is not stingy with blessings. God makes the sun rise on both the good and the bad, and causes the “rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” As followers of Jesus Christ, we have a higher calling. The challenge is to cultivate a love for both friends and foes, for those who are in our camps and those out of our camps. To treat people right, no matter how they treat us. We recall what we have heard in the Sermon on the Mount: 1) Jesus gives a blueprint for living a holy and righteous life in the Beatitudes; 2) Be a positive influence on those around us; 3) God’s laws help us to be in right relationship with others; 4) Seek reconciliation whenever there are rifts between people; 5) Do not take retaliation when you have been wronged; and today, 6) Love your enemies. It’s not easy, that is for sure; and we won’t always avoid making mistakes ourselves. So we pray.
We pray for God’s intervention in the other – the enemy, for sure. We pray, too, because God is also at work in us – to open our heart to see people the way God sees them, not the way we see them. To be perfect as God is perfect is to love our enemies as God would love them. This may be the most difficult thing we do as Christians. But when we humanize rather than demonize, we build a bridge across the divide in our communities, our country, and around the world. With each attempt to love our enemy is another step toward the perfection that Jesus is talking about. The path isn’t an easy one, but we don’t have to walk it alone. I look forward to joining you, as we accompany and support one another on the journey. Today is a momentous day for all of us. Today is turning point for renewed hope and new opportunities.