31 Jan 2016
“‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.’” (Luke 6:36)
In the name …
Last Sunday’s sermon was about biblical inconsistencies: Sermon on the Mount versus Sermon on the Plain kind of stuff. This week I want to point out another important difference in the biblical text. But before I do, I want to show you a greeting card I bought on my last trip out to Boston. It shows five nuns in full habits standing on the clouds of heaven with a beautiful blue sky behind them. Each one of the nuns though is holding a rifle and smiling from ear to ear. The message on the card reads: “Much to their surprise, the Jihadists found the virgins awaiting them in heaven were not what they had expected.” This isn’t anti-Muslim and it’s not meant to be; this is anti-religious-fanatic. It doesn’t matter if it’s Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, whatever. A fanatic’s faith is less about faith in God and more about finding an excuse for human hatred. And unless God is defined by hatred, then there is no god inspiring such fanaticism. That’s why I think this card is well worth the few dollars I paid for it. It’s funny, but its message is right on the mark. The ones who kill and torture in the name of their god may not be too happy when they finally meet God.
Now back to the biblical inconsistency. It again has to do with one of the differences between Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Both of the accounts, as different as they are, as different as their perspectives are, still emphasize the strange and probably most difficult aspect of being a Christian: that we are supposed to love our enemies, that we are supposed to do good to those who hate us, that we are supposed to bless those who curse us, and pray for those who torment us. I think nothing is harder than this in all of our faith.
Even Paul seems to have reservations about these words of Jesus. The first words particular to this morning’s Mass are taken from his Epistle to the Romans. They’re printed on you song sheet. Paul tells the very early church that they should care for their enemies, just like Jesus says in the Gospels, but then they go their separate ways. Jesus says we should love our enemies because, in His words, “‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.’” (Luke 6:32) Jesus is asking us to love more than is natural or instinctive. Paul reins it in a little bit. Paul says be kind to your enemies, sure, but his rationale is not at all like what Jesus has to say. Paul figures that if we’re good to those who aren’t good to us, then “by doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head. (12:20) By the way, not “help buring coals” like is printed on your song sheets, but heap burning coals. So Paul is telling us that if we can love our enemies, then God will really be angry with them at The Judgment. This doesn’t seem quite what Jesus was talking about.
Jesus’ love your enemies is not so that they get it that much more when they have to stand before God, so that we can stand there innocent of any provocation or retaliation only to make them look even worse. That’s a human motive, and Jesus is trying to have us love in ways that are more than human. And this is where one of those important inconsistencies appears in the Bible. Both in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain we hear the message that we should love those who don’t love us because God does that all of the time. God isn’t loving only to those who love Him back; God loves everybody. I particularly like the way Matthew puts this sentiment: “‘[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’” (5:45)
Now both Matthew and Luke know that this commandment to love our enemies is reaching the highest levels of the Christian vocation, that this is probably the hardest lesson to learn and practice in our faith. This is why Matthew’s Jesus finishes off His teaching about love your enemies by saying to any and all who will listen: “‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’” (5:48) This “love your enemy” stuff is to be like God. It is definitely not to be like most all humans act here on earth. It’s hard. Again, it’s probably the hardest thing we are called to do as Christians. It’s unnatural. It’s against our instinct. But it’s at the heart and soul of understanding Jesus and our faith in Jesus.
I don’t know if you remember or not from last Sunday, but we were talking about Luke’s Sermon on the Plain being the more practical version of Matthew’s more spiritual Sermon on the Mount. So instead of “be perfect,” which I don’t think was concrete enough for Luke, like what does it mean to be perfect. Luke instead completes the lesson on love your enemies with Jesus proclaiming: “‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.’” (6:36) He’s saying to us that if we want to know and understand what perfect like God means, then be merciful like God. Mercy is what defines God’s perfection, and this means mercy is the epitome of Christian perfection.
A real religious fanatic would therefore not be defined by ranting and raving and shooting and killing. A real religious fanatic would be defined by love your enemy and being as perfectly merciful as God is merciful. That’s why I bought that greeting card. I laughed and I still do when I see it on my book shelf, but it’s absolutely right on the mark. We can’t confuse self-righteousness with God’s righteousness. God sends His rains on the good and the bad says the Bible. And so in God’s name we have to try and treat everyone with the benefit of the doubt. It’s not easy. It’s not practical. Sometimes it’s going to hurt, but hey, we’re getting ready to think about a God who went to the cross not only for saints, but for everybody. Plus we don’t want to meet those nuns with guns by being the wrong kind of religious fanatic. So in Jesus’ name we pray for the grace necessary to try and better love even our enemies. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo