Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
There is an old saying that a good homily should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I try to strike a good balance along those lines, although I would choose the phrase “challenge those becoming complacent” over “afflict the comfortable.” But however you want to look at it, today’s Gospel is a challenging one, one that expects that we willing suffer afflictions. Love your enemy: this is not only extremely difficult, but it goes against the way of the secular world.
Martin Luther King, in a sermon he gave in 1957 on this very Gospel passage we heard just now, gave several good reasons why we should follow Christ’s dictate to love our enemies, that is to say in addition to the best reason of all: that we signed on to do so when we became Christians. [ https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-ene... ]
The first one he gave is practical: you will spend too much time hating people and not living in the joy promised by God. Turns out there are always people that don’t like us, usually for reasons that are beyond our control. Besides overt racism or sexism, there are many other reasons such as hair style, facial expression, body shape, and so forth. If you let other people hijack your emotions by their words or actions and allow yourself to hate these people, you give them a power over you that you should not. With all of the great things that we can spend time doing, why would we spend one second wasting it on hatred? Now if we’ve given them a real reason to hate us because of what we’ve done to them, that’s a different story – and a different homily – one about atonement.
The second reason Dr. King gave was that every person has some good as well as some bad in them. No one is perfect, yet no one is purely evil. He quotes Paul when he explains the dual nature in every person, including himself, to the Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” [Romans 7:19 NABRE]. Therefore, if we nourish that which is good, both in others and in ourselves, it will grow. Alternatively, if we encourage another's hatred through retaliatory hate, it will just fester and grow in both them and us.
The third reason is this: that hate always distorts a person. If you don’t love someone, but succumb to hate, it will change you, make you bitter, lead you to make bad decisions. To quote his sermon: “You can’t see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.”
The final reason he gave is that by doing so we will continue Christ's work – that is, the redemption of souls. When we fight hate not with our own hate but with love, we will eventually transform that hate into something better. Once again, in Dr. King’s words: “by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. [Therefore,] 'love your enemies.'”
Now Martin Luther King was not a perfect man. He made mistakes, as all people have, since we are all sinners. Most of the aspersions made against him were false and leveled at him from haters, but he never gave into that hate, and therefore deserves the respect he has earned from history. We've all given into hate for someone who has done us a bad turn, and we will again. But we must try to not do so, for the good reasons Dr. King gave in his sermon and demonstrated in his life, up to the point where that life was taken from him by a hater.
Changing the subject just a bit, another quote attributed to Martin Luther King by Father Greg Boyle [Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017, p. 207], was about going to church. He said: “[Church is] not the place you come to, it's the place you go from.” In other words, if you're coming here to get something, you're missing the point. It's what you take away from here when you leave – Christ's message of love, forgiveness, and salvation – and how you share that with the world. One of the benefits of being a deacon is that I get to do the dismissal at the end of the Mass. Now this might not seem to be a big deal, but it is. The word Mass comes from the Latin “missa est,” or “to go forth.” From the time of the early Christians, the time spent with others at church was a time of worship, learning, and renewal so that they could do the work of the Lord for the rest of the week, despite the hardships that they were subject to. The dismissal therefore was important, and still is important, and I as a deacon get to do it.
I mention this because I've been asked to mention the Catholic Appeal of South Carolina, which is the annual fundraising that our diocese does to carry on the good work of our Church. One of those works I personally benefited from – the training that the diocese did in my formation as a deacon. The diocese uses some of the money for formation of both priests in the seminary as well as deacons. Deacons attend six years of formation on weekends and earn a master’s degree in theology by the time it's done. This requires a lot of resources, which I paid part, St. James Parish paid part, and the diocese paid part. The money collected in the Catholic Appeal of South Carolina is important for doing the good work that happens after the dismissal: charity work, Catholic education, youth ministry, and more. I would encourage everyone to prayerfully consider being generous to this appeal. I would also encourage any man who feels called to be a servant leader of his church to consider becoming a priest or a deacon. For all the time I spend doing parish work every week, I am more than paid in kind by the kind words of my fellow parishioners. I have been truly blessed all of my life, and while I became a deacon to give back service for those many blessings, I continue to be blessed many times above what I have ever deserved.
As we continue with the Mass, let the Eucharist we are about to receive fill us with the love of Christ, a love that we in turn give to those we encounter. May we all be blessed by God for the love that we share, even with our enemies, or better especially with our enemies, despite the hate and hardships that we sometimes endure. After our dismissal, my we go forth and bravely live out Christ’s dictate to love our enemies in order to become “perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Matthew 5:48 NABRE].