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 and pray for those who maltreat you.” And there is more: “When someone slaps you on one cheek, turn and give him the other…”
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 who even want 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 said something wrong, tell me; otherwise why do you strike me?” He does respond actively and strongly to his assailant but not with violence but with firm politeness.

Further down, Jesus says: “Do to others what 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? “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Sinners do that all the time,” says Jesus.

Some of the greatest people in the world have acted on this principle of active non-violence. (The key word is ‘active’.) We see it in many of the saints and, in recent times, we saw it in people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and others.

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.

“We know we have passed from death to life,” says the writer, “because we agape-love our brothers and sisters”. You might have expected him to say “because we love God”. “The one who does not agape-love is among the living dead.” Physically alive, but spiritually dead. “Anyone who hates his brother or sister is a murderer – is both a killer and is dead himself.

And the reason for the centrality of this agape-love is perfectly clear. “The way we came to understand agape-love was that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us; we too must lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” And how are we to do that? “How can God’s agape-love survive in a person who has enough of this world’s goods yet closes their heart to their brother or sister in need?”

“Let us love in deed and in truth and not merely talk about it.”

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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