Saint Elizabeth of Hungary – Readings

Commentary on 1 John 3:3, 14-18; Psalm 33; Luke 6:27-38

The Gospel reading is from Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. It is one of the most challenging passages in the whole Gospel, not to mention the whole of the Scriptures. To all those listening to him Jesus says: “Love your enemies.” For most people the two words ‘love’ and ‘enemy’ are mutually exclusive.

Yet, in case we might misunderstand, he goes on:

…do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you.

And there is more:

If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…

For many people, such behaviour is only going to make things worse. It is a purely spineless approach and totally lacking in guts. Yet, is that the case? Which is easier to do – to hit someone back or to refrain from taking action?

One of the problems in Jesus’ saying is the word ‘love’. For us, love tends to be something romantic, affectionate, full of warm feelings; the kind of things the pop songs talk about all the time. How could one have such feelings for someone who wants to harm us? And I think Jesus would agree.

But he is using the word ‘love’ in another sense. The word being used by Jesus is rendered in the Greek of the New Testament as agape. This is a special kind of love. It is not a romantic, emotional feeling. It is something very practical and down to earth. It could be paraphrased as “a very strong desire for the well-being of the other person”.

It is something we are supposed to want for everyone that comes into our life – their well-being. And it includes people who do not know us, do not want to know us, who do know us but do not like us or even those who to harm us. What would be more in our own self-interest, apart from the good it would do to them, than to want such people to change into people without hatred, anger, or violence? This will certainly not happen by hating them back or giving tit for tat.

Turning the other cheek seems the most wimpish thing a person could do. It could be a sign of weakness but it can also be a sign of great inner strength and a refusal to stoop to the level of one’s assailant. It was what Jesus did when he was struck on the cheek by the soldier in the Sanhedrin court during his Passion. He did not hit back, but neither did he remain passively silent. He asked the soldier:

If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me? (John 18:23)

He does respond actively and strongly to his assailant, but not with violence but with firm politeness.

Further on in today’s Gospel, Jesus says:

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If I do not like being insulted or being a victim of abuse or violence, why would I do it to someone else? Jesus also says:

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.

Some of the greatest people in the world have acted on this principle of active non-violence (the key word being ‘active’). We see it in many of the saints, and there are numerous examples in our recent times.

And we certainly see it in St Elizabeth, whose feast we celebrate today. She suffered abuse from her family and even from her spiritual director. She remained a person of love, peace and reconciliation. There was no weakness there, only great inner strength.

These thoughts can be set against the words of the First Reading which are taken from the First Letter of John, a letter which spends much time discussing the centrality of agape-love in our relationship with God and with the people around us.

The writer says:

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love [agape] the brothers and sisters.

You might have expected him to say “because we love God”.

The the writer says:

Whoever does not [agape] love abides in death.

These might be physically alive, but they are spiritually dead because:

All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.

And the reason for the centrality of this agape-love is perfectly clear:

We know [agape] love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers and sisters.

And how are we to do that?

…God’s [agape] love abide[s] in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need… Little children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.

Elizabeth could have led a prayerful and pious life while enjoying all the good things that would come with her royal status. But she spent her wealth in reaching out to the poor and underprivileged. She really did love in deed and in truth.

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