Saturday of week 1 of Lent – Gospel


Commentary on Matthew 5:43-48

Today’s passage, like yesterday’s, comes from the Sermon on the Mount. The two are not unrelated: both speak of dealing with people with whom we have difficulties.

It is a passage which many find difficult, too idealistic or just downright meaningless. The Mosaic Law said that one must love one’s neighbour. It does not actually say we should hate our enemies but in practice such hatred was condoned. Jesus rejects that teaching outright for his followers. We are to love our enemies and pray for them.

How can we possibly do that? It is important that we understand what ‘love’ here means.

In Greek it is the word agape (‘), a deep concern for the good of the other that reaches out even if there is no return. It is not sexual, physical love (eros, ‘) nor is it the mutual love of intimate friendship or that between marriage partners (philia, ).

‘Enemy’ here too means those who do harm to us in some way. It does not include the people we turn into enemies because we don’t like them. The true Christian does not have this kind of enemy.

The main reason Jesus gives for acting in this way is that that is what God himself does.

God has many friends and many who are opposed to him, yet he treats them all exactly the same, his agape reaches out to all indiscriminately just as the welcome rain falls and the burning sun shines with equal impartiality on every single person.

Elsewhere we are told that God IS love, it is his nature; he cannot do anything else. And that love is extended EQUALLY to every single person – to Our Lady, Mother Teresa, to the murdering terrorist, the serial killer, the abusive husband, the paedophile…

The difference is not in God’s love for each of these people but in their response to that love.

Jesus tells us that we must try to love people in the same way. It is important to note that he is not telling us to be IN love with those who harm us or to like them or to have them as our friends. That would be unrealistic and unreasonable to ask.

But if we just care for those who are nice to us how are we different from others? Even members of a murder gang, people with no religion or morals do the same. But we are called to imitate the God in whose image we have been made.

And is it so unreasonable to love, to care for, to have genuine concern for our enemies and pray for them? One presumes, as we have said, they are enemies in the sense that they are hostile to us even though we have not provoked them in any way. True Christians, from their side, do not have enemies. For someone to be my enemy, it means that person really hates me and may wish to do harm to me or may already have harmed me in some way.

What do I gain by hating that that person back? Then there are two of us. Why should I allow another’s person’s hate to influence my feelings towards them? A person who hates, is a person who is suffering, a person who is doing more damage to himself – rather than to the supposed enemy. As the gospel says, another person can hurt my body but not my inner self.

And, if he/she does harm me, they only harm themselves as well, even if they get a twisted pleasure in the short term. If I have a true Christian spirit I will reach out in compassion to that person. I will want that person to be healed, healed of their hatred, healed of their anger, and to learn how to love.

Surely it is much better and makes more sense to pray for that person than to hate them back. To bring about healing and reconciliation rather than deepen the wound on both sides.

What Jesus is asking us to do is not something impossible or unnatural. It is the only thing that makes sense and will bring peace to me and hopefully in time to the person who is hostile to me. We can literally disarm a hating person by acting towards them in a positive and loving way and refusing to be controlled by their negative attitudes. “Bless are the peacemakers; they will be called children of God.”

“So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Obviously, this is an ideal that we can only reach out to. But it is a call to do our utmost to imitate God in extending our goodwill impartially and unconditionally to every single person. This is not just a commandment. When we reflect on it, it is simply common sense and it is as much in our own interest as it benefits others.

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