Sunday, February 20, 2011

Love your enemies and you will conquer, Sermon of February 20th

St. Thomas More died
the King's good servant, but God's first.

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
February 20th, 2011
Matthew 5:38-48

You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. […] Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

In the Sermon on the Mount our Savior speaks with such clarity and precision as to cut through all our personal issues and excuses, piercing us to the heart and convicting us in his Love. In the words of today’s Gospel, Christ offers a teaching at once utterly simple and yet also extremely challenging: Love your enemies. This is at the center of the Christian life, this is the one necessary thing – supernatural Charity, Divine Love.
And what is the difference between a natural human love and a supernatural Divine Love? Both are good, but that Charity and Love which is supernatural so far surpasses that love which is natural, that it is the difference between eternal life and eternal death. For this is natural and human love: that we should love our friends and neighbors, that we should do good to those who do good for us. This love is good, but since it is natural it cannot suffice unto life everlasting.
Salvation in Christ requires supernatural Charity: a Love which expands beyond our friends even to our enemies. If we do not love our enemies, we cannot be saved – for we have not the Love of Christ within us.

Now, when we are confronted with such a radical teaching as that which is given in the Sermon on the Mount, we may be tempted to come up with hundreds of little objections and qualifications. We hear Christ say, Offer no resistance to one who is evil, and Turn the other cheek. To this we may be tempted to respond that such an attitude just won’t work in the real world. In the world we live in today, we can’t just turn the other cheek, we need to defend ourselves – Jesus’ teaching just doesn’t match up with contemporary life.
To this objection, Christ might well respond, “Indeed, you are right. The commands I give you will not accord with the world – that is because the world is passing away. I have come to make all things new.” The wisdom of the world is utter foolishness compared to the Divine Wisdom, and the power of the world is weakness before the Divine Strength.

Certainly, we must admit that the ethic which Christ here gives to us is primarily a personal ethical code. There are times when nations have the right and the duty to defend themselves, there are times when a war can be just; and even individuals may legitimately defend their lives and their families.
Nevertheless, the teaching of Christ applies even to war and self-defense: For we are never to kill another out of hatred, but even in war we are commanded to love our enemy. How radical is the teaching of Christ!

Lest any should think that this teaching is impossible, or that such humility would result in our utter defeat; we ought briefly to consider several examples from history which prove Christ’s teaching. Here we will take on something even of a scientific method: showing, from real historical experience, that turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies will bring about the final victory of truth.

Consider the deacon St. Stephen, the first martyr. Only a few years after Christ’s Resurrection, the leaders of the Jews arrested Stephen and condemned him to death – for they hated Christianity. But Stephen did not resist those evil men, he did not cry out against them, he did not curse them; rather, his final breath was spent in interceding in their behalf. Stephen prayed, “Father forgive them.” Through it all, St. Stephen loved his enemies, even as they murdered him.
And it would seem that this was the end, that nothing else would come of Stephen’s death – the wisdom of the world could see no further. However, there at the martyrdom, Saul of Tarsus stood by, complicit in the murder. Saul too persecuted the Church, but by the merits of Stephen’s prayers, he was converted on the road to Damascus and became the greatest preacher of the early Church – St. Paul the Apostle.
How wonderful is the Divine Wisdom. Stephen turned the other cheek and won the conversion of Paul. Paul, in his turn, spread the Gospel to the Gentiles and won the conversion of the whole world. Loving one’s enemies does accomplish great things indeed!

Take another example, one closer to modern times: That of St. Thomas More. Thomas More was a laymen, a lawyer, and a politician in England during the time of the English Reformation under King Henry VIII. For his part, Thomas was a good friend of the King; but as far as the King was concerned, Thomas was an enemy – since St. Thomas More would not abandon the Catholic faith for the heretical church of England.
King Henry persecuted Thomas terribly. He took away his titles, impoverished his family, and ultimately had him imprisoned and sentenced to death. But, through all of this, St. Thomas More harbored no hatred against the King. Indeed, so true was he to Christ’s words, that St. Thomas would not only not speak evil of the King himself, but he would not suffer any to criticize the King in his presence. If any wanted to speak ill of the King, Thomas More would silence them and even threaten to throw them out of his house – for he loved the King and was concerned for his honor and well-being. Indeed, in all of England the King had no more loyal a servant than Thomas More.
Yet, for all this, St. Thomas was beheaded and, just before his execution, he said, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Then, turning to the executioner, St. Thomas pulled a coin from his pocket and himself paid the man his daily wages – he even encouraged the man (who felt guilty and was very disturbed at the thought of killing the Saint) and he said to him, “Do not be sad, for you send me heaven.” This is the supernatural Charity which wins salvation!

Even in our own lives, we can think of persons who are always defending themselves and who refuse to suffer even the least slight against themselves. They constantly feel wronged and always desire recompense and justice to be meted out against their enemies. How unbearable such persons are! They will soon have no friends.
Those, on the other hand, who are humble and meek, who don’t count any injustices against themselves, but are quick to forgive; these people are always most welcome. Such persons are happy and have many friends. Their lives are successful and filled with joy. Even in this life, we can see that supernatural Charity, which must be expressed in loving one’s enemies, brings greater success than hatred and anger.

Ultimately, we recall the Love with which God has loved us. For we have many times set ourselves against God – conceived with original sin, we have added to this countless actual sins throughout tour lives. How many times we have strayed from God and made ourselves to be his enemies! And yet his Love is greater than our wickedness. As we wondered far from him, he came in search of us, and brought us back into communion through his Son. When we have received such immense Love, how can we fail to Love others?
May the Love of God, dwelling within us, bring us all to life everlasting.