5th Sunday after Pentecost
Last night at Vespers and again this morning at Matins, Holy Mother Church put before our eyes the dirge intoned by David at the death of Saul and Jonathan. It is truly amazing, no doubt divine, how a plaintive chant composed three millennia ago can still provoke emotion. What is even more astonishing is that even though David and Jonathan were close friends, Saul had persecuted David to death. He tried on numerous occasions to kill David. He hunted him down in the wilderness and spared no effort to discover his location in order to find and murder him. And yet, when David learns of the King’s death, what does he do? Rejoice? By no means. He weeps, he laments, he is inconsolable. His archenemy is dead and David weeps over him.
Is it not amazing to see, before Our Lord gave us the precept of charity in the Gospel, such extraordinary love for one’s enemies. And there are other examples in the Old Testament. The patriarch Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, will be given the opportunity for revenge when his famished brethren come to Egypt for food. He too will forgive and do all he can to alleviate their hunger. He will turn the page on the past. He will not bear a grudge.
The commandment of the Lord is clear: “But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you” (Mt 5:44). What is it to say? Is this lofty doctrine really possible? Can we really forgive those who hurt us, pray for those who cause us strife? Can we sincerely ask God to pardon those who commit heinous crimes: the baby murderers, the child abusers, the crooks who leave penniless victims, the vandals who destroy in minutes the work of a lifetime, the revolutionaries who spread lies to rewrite history, the clerics who pretend to be shepherds but are really ravenous wolves? and the list goes on. Can we really love someone who does evil? Someone who may have done me evil? Who perhaps at this very moment is plotting more evil against me? Is this not over and above our strength?
We might be tempted to think so. But does God command the impossible? Or maybe the commandment to love our enemies is only for the elite, the saints, the really good people, and not the average person like you and me? Here we need to remind ourselves with the Council of Trent that God does not command the impossible, but when He commands He asks that we do what we can and to pray for what we cannot. He helps us by His grace so that we are able. For His commandments are not burdensome (1 Jn 5:3), but His yoke is sweet and His burden light (Mt 11:30).
Yes, the forgiveness of wrongs and prayer for one’s enemies is impossible to nature, but it is not impossible to grace. In a passage of his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II took issue with those who hold that the prescriptions of the moral law are impossible to keep. He was referring to the struggle against concupiscence, but what he says hold true for overcoming the natural desire for revenge. “Of which man are we speaking?” he writes. “Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ’s redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realising the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act. God’s command is of course proportioned to man’s capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit” (Veritatis Splendor 103).
If Christ has given us the Holy Spirit and with Him the grace to live the perfection of the Gospel, then yes, it is not only possible to forgive those who hurt us. It is a duty. It is a necessity on anyone who is honoured with the beautiful name of Christian.
At the end of the today’s Gospel, the Lord tells us that if our brother – any brother or sister, that is to say, any human being – has anything against us, then we must first go and be reconciled with them before bringing our gift to the altar. What is it to say if not that what interests God is not so much what you have to offer Him as yourself, your own heart, which must be freed from the destructive desire for revenge?
Here we perceive the loftiness of the Gospel precept. Whereas the logic of the world is destructive – its desire for revenge and getting even leads to more and more destruction –, the logic of the Gospel, following the example of the Lord is to set free, to liberate from the slavery of sinful revenge.
Our Lord Himself gave us this lesson. Instead of destroying His enemies, He allows them to overcome Him. Instead of responding to violence with violence, He responds with meekness and gentleness. What does this teach us? Ultimately that the Christian overcomes injustice by allowing it to exhaust its energies on him. Whereas violence only generates more violence – and this violence can be physical, verbal or mental – forgiveness and meekness create peace. Whereas the failure to forgive imprisons both the offender and the offended, pardon sets them both free, free to love, free to praise, free to bless.
The Lord Jesus has set us free by means of His passion and death. Let us, in turn, learn how to accept being treated unfairly. Let us learn how to bless those who curse us.
One final word. This Saturday we will be celebrating the solemnity of St Benedict. He too gave us an exemplary example of the pardon of faults and the refusal to avenge himself. When that wicked priest who had tried to kill him and then attempted to corrupt his young monks died a tragic death, Benedict reprimands the young monk who showed some satisfaction at his death. St Benedict wept for the poor priest, as David wept for Saul.
The truly Christian heart always seeks to save, to forgive, to set free. Only when we learn to do this does it become possible to love God above all things and obtain the fruit of His promises which exceed all that we can desire.