During what was known as ‘The Troubles’ in northern Ireland, that time of guerilla warfare when the north was riddled with tit-for-tat killings—British soldiers being shot, Catholics and Protestants being shot—I was amazed every so often at the bravery of parents who were interviewed after one of their children had been shot dead because they were Catholic or Protestant. Sometimes in those very interviews the parents would say ‘We want no revenge, no retaliation. We forgive the people who murdered our son/daughter.’ I think those statements shocked people more than the murders themselves. Much of the time people were ambushed and shot dead simply because they were Catholic or Protestant, which gives you an idea of the kind of evil at work behind such actions. I think anyone would understand if these people’s parents wanted to look for revenge, and yet quite a number did the opposite. It was a very inspiring and hope-filling thing to hear. There is great goodness in most people; in most people. When Catholic churches were burnt to the ground, often Protestants would donate money to help rebuild them, but you don’t hear those things on the news. There is great goodness in most people.
Today we are presented with what is probably the most difficult commandment that Jesus gave: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ So far I have never met anyone who wants to do this! Did Jesus really expect us to take that literally? Maybe it was just a figurative way of speaking? Jesus meant exactly what he said. Remember his own words when he was dying on the cross, a death that was considered so brutal that the Emperor Constantine eventually had it banned: ‘Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’ The Lord does expect us to try and live this commandment, but how we are to do it is the key thing. Essentially it comes down to God’s power and strength at work within us, but that will only happen if we remain close to God. That is also why Jesus gave us the Eucharist, so that we can be intimately united to him every day if we wish. That is where we get our strength from. We continually read the Scriptures so that we are being formed in God’s way of thinking and not just a worldly way of thinking.
Think of all the commercials, radio and TV programs, newspapers, that we read each day. We spend a lot of time feeding our mind with the values and thinking of the world around us. But the ways of God are not the ways of the world. They are quite different. Our culture tells us that we should sue people and seek revenge if we feel we have been slighted. There are so many commercials on TV encouraging us to sue people. That’s not what God tells us to do. If we only love the people around us that we normally love, then how are we different from anyone else? That’s exactly what Jesus puts to us in this Gospel. We are called to be different by the way we live and think. If we do try and live this way, then we stand out because we are different. Then we are the salt of the earth and the yeast that makes the dough rise. We are small but we can have a big difference on the world around us, just like those parents who publicly said they forgave the people who killed their children. I am sure it was their faith that enabled them to do that, because that takes more than human strength.
This is why we have to keep going back to our relationship with God. It is meant to be a real, living relationship, as real as any relationship with another person. As that relationship with Jesus grows then and only then does it become possible to live this way, to see good in those around us, even those who hurt us.
I want to finish with a short part of a very famous speech given by Martin Luther King Jr which reflects this:
To our bitterest opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, we shall continue to love you… Throw us in jail, we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half-dead and we shall still love you. One day we will win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process. (Martin Luther King, Strength to Love)
‘Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.’