Lectio Divina: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
… But I tell you: Love your enemies
Matthew 5: 38-48
1. Opening prayer
May your breath blow as the spring breeze
that makes life bloom
and opens up love;
or let it be as the hurricane that unleashes
and raises latent energies.
May your breath pass in our eyes
to open them up to farther and wider horizons,
drawn by our Father’s hand.
May your breath pass on our saddened faces
to restore a smile again;
may it graze our tired hands to give them new life
and make them able to work joyfully
for the Gospel’s sake.
May your breath pass since dawn
holding fast all our days in a generous impulse.
May your breath pass as night approaches
to keep us safe in your light
and in your enthusiasm.
May it pass and remain throughout all our life
to renew it and give it the true and profound dimensions:
which are outlined in the Gospel of Jesus.
a) A key to the reading:
The seventh Ordinary Sunday, unfortunately rarely celebrated, as it is inserted in the short period of time between Christmas and Lent confronts us with one of the sharpest Gospel passages, challenging and comforting at the same time, that a Christian can meet: the closing words or "antithesis" of the Sermon on the Mount.
The first reading from Leviticus (19.1-2, 17-18), is a piece of the "law of holiness." It relates directly to the second part of the Gospel text, with the command to love our neighbor and closely parallels with the last sentence of the words of the Lord.
The second reading (1 Cor 3.16 to 23) shows a further development of the theme of the Gospel: the path of Christian holiness, as far as humanly paradoxical and difficult to understand and put into practice, becomes possible by virtue of our mutual belonging to God. We are consecrated to Him and He has given himself completely to us through love; making us capable of loving like He does, of loving because of him and in him.
Our passage belongs to the so called “Sermon on the Mount” and is the first of the great speeches of Jesus that characterizes the first Gospel and includes chapters 5 to 7. This long speech, beginning with the most known and always provocative Beatitudes, can be read in the light of Jesus’ statement on the full completion of the Law: " Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets: I came not to abolish them but to fulfill them…
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (5,17.20).
Our passage belongs to the second section of the sermon, the one exposing the “new ethic”, which comes to give fullness and perfection to the ethic based on the law given by Moses. This new ethic is characterized by statements beginning with the words: “But I tell you”; these statements lead us from the words of the Law or from a way to apply it to a new ethic law, which does not abolish the old Law, but gives it a new interpretation, in the light of our human interiority, in which God dwells as our Master and living example. In this way Jesus comes under our eyes and is presented to us by the Evangelist as a imitator of Moses, one who has in himself the same authority as the great leader of the Jewish people.
The verses of the Gospel this Sunday are the last verses of this section with the two last “anti-thesis” or “hyper-thesis”, which are strictly bound and have the strength to express the highest moral wisdom, based on the most pure and deep faith in God as Father and almighty and merciful Lord.
In light of the other readings of this Sunday's celebration, the strong ethical demands of Jesus that we hear today are to be seen not as the result of a heroic attitude, but rather as the result of a full Christian life of high quality
and more conforming to the “image of the Son” (Rom 8:29).
b) The text: Matthew 5: 38-48
38 "You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 "You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
3. Moment of Slience
So that the Word of God may penetrate in our hearts and enlighten our life.
4. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme
We start from the premise that the Sermon on the Mount is not a "law according to cases", that is the enumeration of "ethical cases" with the solution best suited to each. On the contrary, as it has been well expressed by the scholar J. Ernst: "Considered as ethical rules, such requests (those inserted in the Sermon on the mount) are totally meaningless. Their significance is to be found in the role they play as signs and directions. In fact they want to draw our attention in a drastic way on the new era of salvation, which began with Jesus. The commandment of love has now acquired an ultimate radical stress.
Matthew 5.38: Jesus' exhortation starts from the "law of retaliation" (eye for an eye), which is a rule born from the civil law to prevent immoderate revenges, especially if hyperbolic; revenges that are to be limited according to a criterion of just balance between the evil committed and the evil given back and, above all, these revenges must be ruled within a judicial sphere.
Matthew 5.39 a: Jesus clear intent is not the condemnation of the ancient "eye for an eye" with all its rigors. He intends to suggest to us an approach for practical life, in accordance with the infinite goodness and mercy of our heavenly Father as a general attitude of life, made possible by the proclamation of the kingdom. The disciples of Jesus must be guided by a criterion that exceeds, by virtue of an overflowing love, the natural inclination to demand the absolute respect of one’s rights. Those who belong to Jesus must live according to generosity: spending one’s life for others, forgetting their own interests, free from meanness, being benevolent, forgiving, giving proof of greatness of soul. This is a practical, and really radical way to interpret the beatitude of the meek (Matt. 5, 5).
5.39 b-42: Here are a few examples of magnanimity (that is to have a “animus magnus – a soul wide opened”) that should characterize the Christian, who is called to give more than it is required or claimed by him. Of course, this is not an absolute law, which would upset the socially accepted way of life, but it is a way to show the spirit of love even towards those who have done something bad.
The underlying message contained in these so well known examples corrects deeply the message contained in the "law of retaliation" (eye for an eye) and cannot be properly understood, except in the light of it.
The believer is called to interpret every situation, even those presenting very serious difficulties, in terms of the love of God which he has already received, making a radical leap in the approach: no more retaliation or revenge, nor the defense of himself and of his rights, even though appropriate, but the search for the good of everyone, even those who do evil. In this way one becomes free from the chain of revenge or even violence, which could become endless, to get justice by oneself, risking to fall into the spiral of evil under the influence of excessive zeal. It is on God’s justice, which is always better, that we have to rely.
St. Paul expresses this very well: "Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. "(Rom 12.17-21).
The interpretation of these living standards can be found in the general attitude and in several specific episodes of the Passion of Jesus: when he reacts with calmness and firmness to the beatings during the process held by the Jews (Jn 18:23), when he doesn’t flee from being arrested and prevents Peter to fight for him (Jn 18.4 to 10), when he forgives those who crucified him (Luke 23:34) and takes the thief in paradise (Luke 23.40-43). And we know that the key to understanding the passion of Jesus is God's love for humanity (Jn 13:1, 15:13).
A hero of nonviolence, Martin Luther King, wrote: "The oceans of history are made turbulent by the flow of always insurrecting revenge. Man never raised above the commandment of the lex talionis: "Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." In spite of the fact that the law of revenge does not solve any social problem, people continue to pursue his disastrous leadership. The story echoes the noise of the ruin of nations and individuals who have followed this self-destructive path. Jesus from the cross stated eloquently a higher law. He knew that the old law eye for an eye would make all blind, and did not try to overcome evil with evil: he won the evil with good. Crucified by hate he responded with aggressive love.
What a wonderful lesson! Generations will rise and fall, man will continue to worship the god of vengeance and prostrate before the altar of retaliation, but then more and more this noble lesson of Calvary will be an urgent warning that only goodness can eliminate the evil and only love can overcome hate. "(The power of love, Società Editrice Internazionale, Torino, 1994, p. 65).
Matthew 5.43: The Old-Testament commandment that Jesus quotes is the result of the combination of a quote from Leviticus (19:18) and the extrabiblical words "and hate your enemy" that come from a totally negative attitude towards the Gentiles, seen as enemies of God and, therefore, as enemies of the people of God and as such they had to be rejected in any way, in order to avoid the infection of their idolatry and immorality.
Matthew 5.44 a: The evangelist uses, significantly, the verb agapao to indicate the Christian duty to love the enemies far beyond any general rule and any kind of friendship. This is the most typical verb expressing God’s attitude towards men and men’s attitude towards God and his fellows: a radical will of free goodness and self-giving.
This precept, completely new and shocking in many ways, completes the previous teachings of Jesus and refers to the "superabundant justice" from which began the Sermon on the Mount. It is up to this very lofty goal that he wanted to bring his disciples: "Love your enemies."
The enemies we are talking about here, specifically, are the persecutors, pagans, idolaters, those who most directly contrasted the Christian ideal, thus constituting a threat to faith. However, they are the prototype and the symbol of each enemy. To them the Christian should use the same kindness that he has with his brothers in faith. Not only tolerance, love or friendship in general, but deep and disinterested love of self that the believer can only draw from the heart of God and learn from his example, as seen in the creation and history of the universe.
Matthew 5.44 b: «" Love and pray, love up to pray. " It is the supreme gift that can be done to the enemy, because it puts in place the maximum internal energy: the power of faith. It's easier to offer a gesture of external aid or relief than to desire intimately, in one’s heart and in truth, the good of the enemy, as much as to make it the theme and the intention of the prayer before God. If you pray for him, asking for him graces and blessings, it means that you desire and want what is good for him. This is to be sincere in love. Prayer is the Christian’s reward to the blames of the enemy "(OP).
Matthew 5.45: Jesus explains why we should love our enemies. The filiation He is talking about in this passage does not cancel that by creation or adoption, but it is primarily the one of the similarity of our feelings with those of God.
The Christian must imitate in his everyday life the goodness of his heavenly Father.
So, when he loves his enemy, he becomes child of the Heavenly Father, because it is the result of the desire to love like He does.
Of course, the identity of the children of God is not static, but emerges from a dynamic process. Those who are children of God by Baptism, become fully his children living and growing in the same logic of the Father, also making gestures of love that reveal his likeness to God. Since God is good and fair, his sons are good and fair, able to regulate their own love not according to the merits of others, but according to the love and care that each living being receives constantly by God.
The more one lets himself be shaped by the grace of God, the more he can put into practice this commandment, and the more the Holy Spirit will bear witness to his spirit that he is the son of God (cf. Rom 8:16).
Matthew 5.46-47: the real difference between Christians and other men is the attitude and the capacity to love even those who would be "naturally" not lovely.
Matthew 5.48: Perfect (teleios, complete, accomplished - in this case, complete in love).
Again Jesus links the commandment of love for the enemy with his Father's example, with the actions that He accomplishes daily for the benefit of all and which are the fruit of his heart full of love, that He, the Son, knows deeply. This is the heart of Christian morality which is not a law to observe, but is a communion of life with this Father given by the Holy Spirit, "the law of the Spirit who gives life in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:2).
In this communion, the Christian absorbs the love of the Father, a love that aims to change enemies into friends, changing the bad and making them become good.
Isaac of Nineveh, commenting v. 45, states: "By the Creator there is no change, or intention that is before or after, in his nature, there is no hatred or resentment, or smaller or bigger place in his love, either after or first in his knowledge. In fact, if everyone believes that the creation has begun as a result of goodness and love of the Creator, we know that this plea does not change or decreases in the Creator, as a result of a disorder in his creation.
It would be odious and blasphemous to claim that in God exist hatred or resentment – not even for the demons - or to imagine any other weakness or passion ... On the contrary, God acts with us in ways that are advantageous for us; either causes of pain or relief for us, of joy or sadness, insignificant or glorious. All of them are oriented towards the same eternal Goods "(Discourse, Part 2, 38.5 and 39.3).
5. Questions for reflection:
to help us in our personal reflection and meditation.
- I stop, Do I know that these words are for me, today?
Do I know that Jesus speaks to me in the situation that I live in this particular moment in my life?
- Do I take very seriously the words of the gospel?
- How do I live these high and yet unavoidable ethical standards?
"I tell you: Do not resist an evil person "
"If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also"
"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"
"Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."
- I examine myself: What are my models of conduct when I am in difficult situations?
When I feel attacked or treated unfairly?
- And when I feel the lack of love of others or their aversion to me, how do I react?
Which pattern does my action follow in this situations?
- In my prayer do I put myself in front of the example of Jesus?
Am I able to watch at least a little to the Father who is a merciful Father of all beings in the universe and keeps all in existence?
- It's time to take another step forward in the way I act: I invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may shape my interior according to the image of Jesus, making me able to love others like him and because of him!
The Word of God offers us a magnificent hymn for our prayer.
The beauty and timeliness of the famous "hymn to love" (1 Cor 13,1-9.12 b-13) become even stronger for us if, when we pray, we replace the word "charity"with the name of Jesus, who is divine love incarnate, and who is a true reflection of the Father’s love for all His creatures:
If I speak in the tongue of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love
7. FINAL PRAYER
O God, in your Son, stripped and humiliated on the cross, you have revealed the strength of your love, open our hearts to the gift of your Spirit and provide that, accepting him, might be broken within us the chains of violence and hatred that bind us to the lifestyle of those who do not know you, so that through the victory of good over evil we may manifest our identity of God’s children and bear witness to your Gospel of reconciliation and peace.