From A Catholic Moment,
At the age of 90, Jona Laks one of the survivors of the Nazi Auschwitz death camp of World war II recalling her experience as she went to participate in the 75th anniversary (27th January, 2020) of the camp’s liberation says:”Walking towards the Auschwitz crematorium after 75 years and gazing at the sparks from the chimney, I could still smell the burning flesh of the millions of Jews murdered in gas chamber.” And walking through the metal narrow gate with its “Arbeit macht frei”, ( work sets you free), she said to her grand daughter in her company, “Through this narrow gate, so many people walked in and never came back, ending their lives behind these barbed-wire fences.” Laks was 15 at this time of the war. She was taken to Auschwitz together with Miriam her twin sister and their elder sister Chana. There she was selected among those to be murdered while two of her sisters were sent to labor camp. But her elder sister Chana intervened and begged Joseph Mengele “the angel of death” (as Laks described him) not to separate her twin sisters. And eventually Laks was retrieved and sent to labor camp…the rest was just the story of survival. And still guessing at the camp, she was overcome by a sense of triumph and said: “I am here with my granddaughter and I overcame. I won the war. We have a future.”
Jesus teaches us today to love and pray for our enemies. If Laks has only one reason to forgive and to love, it should be the fact that she survived. She could have also died. God always gives us reason to love. We only need to discover it so that the world will be a living place.
FIRST READING: Leviticus 19:1-2.17-18
This reading taken from the book of Leviticus is called Holiness Code. “Be holy for I the Lord your God, Am holy” is a testament that the God of Israel is not just a transcendent God but He is also holy. This Code is not only given to underline the holiness of the God of Israel as a factor that distinguishes Him from the corruptibility and carnality of the pagan gods (like the story of Hera, the first Greek goddess who got married to her brother Zeus, or Zeus who had sexual knowledge with numerous nymphs, sea maidens, human ladies and even the random female animals), but it is also a call for His people to configure themselves to their God. This passage is a direct referential message to the story of the fall of man. Hence, it is God’s intention to restore his disfigured image in man, and only holiness can do it. In this way God will not only be different from the pagan gods, but His people will also be different from the pagans. Does the world in which we live really care about holiness? Nothing else makes us different from the rest of the people of this world except our constant quest for holiness.
SECOND READING: 1 Corinthians 3:16-23
The Greek philosophy, the Socratic and Platonian philosophical thoughts saw the human body as a prison for the soul of man. Therefore, in order to attain the highest good (a state of philosophy), a true philosopher is one who should despise every bodily pleasure. Manichean doctrine which also had a great influence on St. Augustine of Hippo before his conversion also taught how the body should be chastised in order to attain holiness. But the Christian theology of the body as inherited from St. Paul’s teaching today does not see the human person as the soul imprisoned in the body. Man is body and soul, and this man (body in the sense of physical existence) is “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” St. Paul instructs that this temple must be kept holy. This call came as a warning to desist from pagan influence in the metropolitan city of Corinth as well as other pagan cities that perform the temple rite of sexual intercourse as a sacred duty to the goddess “Aphrodite” (as in the Greeks which was a goddess associated with love, beauty, pleasure, passion and procreation). St Paul will extend this teaching repeating almost the same words in 1 Cor. 6:15-20 where he openly warned against prostitution and the immoral use of the body that has been bought over for the glory of God (v.20).
GOSPEL: Matthew 5:38-48
“Any person who inflicts injury on his fellow, as he did so shall be done to him: a fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. However, he injured his fellow, so shall be done to him” (Lev. 24:19-20).
The experience of slavery and contact with pagan nations left certain influences on the Hebrews. One of these influences came from their contact with the Babylonian code of law enacted by King Hammurabi, an ancient lawmaker (1792-1750 B.C). It was strictly a law of raw justice-“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (known as lex talionis, the law of retaliation) as a way of curbing social injustice. Moses encouraged the application of this law among the Hebrews, although he further gave them other laws commanding for a fair treatment of their enemies: “You will not exact vengeance on, or bear any sort of grudge against the members of your race, but will love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh” (Lev. 19:18).
Down the history, the rabbinic tradition reflected over the “Lex talionis” and its implication based on Genesis 1:27 which read that God created man in his own image and likeness. Hence, any form of mutilation or inflicting of injury on the other would amount to disfiguring the image of God. So, the root of this reflection was the move to promote the sacrosanctity of life: “One who saves a life saves an entire world; one who destroys life destroys an entire world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Instead of physical infliction of injury, other laws were created to checkmate social justice, such as the law of monetary compensation which should be determined by the judge base on the offence committed.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus who is part of this long tradition teaches something which no other rabbi or sage before him ever taught. Taking the law of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Lev. 24:19-20), the law of “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), as well as the rabbinic tradition of compensation, He advanced a new teaching that abolishes any form of revenge, and a teaching that does not just encourage the love of a neighbor but also an enemy and to pray for him. He equally moved the rabbinic tradition of compensation to “abandoning of ones tunic for whoever takes it.” What a radical message we have here!
In the next few days, the Church will begin a very important period, the Lenten season. It is a season that culminates with the death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, the Gospel reading today falls in place. It is Jesus’ invitation to his followers to renew their identity in the face of a banalized Christian identity. He is not teaching an abstract and impossible message. He lived what he taught. His passion and death reveal how he loved his enemies. He did not just love them, but He also prayed for them: “Father forgive them…” (Lk 23:34). But was that all? No! He also died for them. He loved them to the point of death. He never stopped loving them. He died for the sake of love. St Paul puts it better when he says: “So it is a proof of God’s own love for us that Christ died for us while we were still sinners” (Rm 5:8). It simply means while we were still God’s enemies; when we still do not merit His love, yet He could not resist loving us.
1. HOW POSSIBLE IS IT TO FORGIVE, LOVE AND PRAY FOR AN ENEMY?
Let us try to recollect our memory about all those who have lied against us in one moment or the other; and no less than those whom we have loved, and they turned to stab us from behind. What about those whom we have trusted and even confided our secrets and they went about spreading bad rumors about us? So many of us have also been victims of insults, bullies and abuses (physical and psychological), and have even witnessed our loved ones killed under our watch. It is very much natural that we see our enemies suffer. It is gratifying. However, can we really find meaning in the teaching of Christ? Yes, we can. It is easy to think that others are our enemies, but we find it difficult to realize that we are also enemies to others. Everyone of us is an enemy to another. We are enemies to ourselves. We are all owing each other. Do you want to know how? We are connected to ourselves, to others and to God. So, the existence of the other and God obliges my responsibility. When I am not able to love and treat them as I am supposed to, then I am an “enemy” not just to them but also to myself because my life has meaning only when I am in good relationship with God and others.
Meanwhile, there are two ways in which we can express our enmity: Active and passive. It is active when we openly hate people and they are aware that we hate them. On the other hand, it is passive when we hate people without showing it in the open. We often have negative judgment about others-so much prejudice in our hearts. This is when we see the world only from our own perspective; when everything is all about my country, my people, my language, my color. It is called the “My” syndrome. When I decide in my heart not to associate with a set of people simply because they are different from me, it is called hatred. They are often not aware of it, but we bear it in our hearts; and sometimes we smile in pretense so as not to let them know that we hate them. Therefore, we all have someone to forgive, someone to love and someone to pray for because we are all guilty.
2. TURN THE OTHER CHEEK; GIVE OUT YOUR TUNIC!
One thing we are sure of is that violence has never contributed anything positive to human development. The justice of eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth has done more harm than good. Peace is a difficult but a sure way to human development. A practical example is Europe as a continent. Up until the end of world war II, Europe was a den of antagonism and bloody wars which marred its development as a continent. It was not until 1950 when they sat together to create what will end as European union which paved way for a boom of development that culminated with the treaties of 1990-1999 of an Europe without frontier (though there could still be uncurbed tendency of one feeling superior to the other).
Jesus is not discouraging us from seeking for justice for what rightly belongs to us, but he is simply saying that sometimes we need to let go of that which belongs to us. Sometimes the enemy is weakened through our non-violent active resistance and derives more joy in violence when we show that we are ready for violence. Yes, we must learn to let go. Many people have died fighting for what they claim to be their right thus leaving their families at the verge of suffering which they might have avoided if they had let go. We often call it heroism without counting on the harm it has caused for the innocent ones. To let go is not a sign of weakness. It is not cowardice as the world often tag it. It is also a virtue. Sometimes, letting go opens us up to a greater good. Christ knew that he was innocent of the accusations the Jews levelled against Him. He had all the possibilities to fight back. He could have commanded the heavenly army to fight for Him, or as God wipe away His enemies in a twinkle of an eye. But He chose to let go because of a higher good. He chose to let go because He needed to get down to Calvary to pay the ultimate price that we have all benefitted from. I know this message may not be pleasing to justice and right-minded persons, but let us always pause before we act (weigh the pros and cons of our actions). Yes, “the other cheek must be turned, and the tunic must have to drop.” It is not easy but is it a call from Him who gave everything to the point that the only thing that covered his nakedness on the cross was taken away and shared among the soldiers (Jn 19:23-24).
Prudence, non-violent but active resistance (truly showing a domineering Christian spirit) and letting go is the answer in the face of a world that derives joy in violence.
3. JESUS IS OUR ONLY MODEL
The message of today will remain a speculation if we try to weigh it on the scale of human standard. One of the challenges I have dealt with in the counselling section of my pastoral ministry is when I hear such words like: “Father you will not understand…I will never forgive him…” How many of us do keep a daily record of our sins? If we can learn to practice this, then we will realize that none of us deserves to live. Let us imagine how the heart of Jesus bleeds in pains and agony over our wickedness after paying the debt we could not pay, yet He forgives us whenever we ask for forgiveness. I have often asked myself; “who am I, and what exactly in me merits the love of God? Absolutely nothing! Then why am I stone-hearted? Why should I say “over my dead body will I forgive him.” Isn’t it a mockery and a test of God’s patience whenever I say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?” The reason why it is so difficult for us to forgive and love is because we often look at our image instead of looking at the image of He whom we are following. When it seems difficult, let us look at the “Cross of Christ” then we will realize that love is love when it is crucified; I mean when it is sacrificed and when it makes one shade tears.
Lord we are sincerely sorry for the moments we have not obeyed your words. And today it is even more difficult to understand what you are asking from us. We wish to walk away, but to whom shall we really go to if we leave you since you have the word of eternal life? May your Spirit melt our hearts to accept this challenge to love and to pray for our enemies as you have always loved and prayed for us to the Father. Amen.