Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany. He preached non-violent Christian discipleship and resistance, encouraging Christians in the virtue of loving one’s enemies. He was arrested after getting caught helping Jews escape Germany, and he was executed in a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship: “We are approaching an age of widespread persecution. Our adversaries seek to root out the Christian Church because they cannot live side by side with us. So what shall we do? We shall pray. It will be a prayer of earnest love for those who stand around and gaze at us with eyes aflame with hatred, and who have perhaps already raised their hands to kill us.” A few weeks ago, I made reference to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering… Do to us what you will, and we will still love you.”
We talked about the difficulty of being God’s prophetic people, of living and speaking God’s love, his light, into the darkness and sin of our world, and suffering for it, if necessary. In our readings this week, we get specific instructions, and core principles, of what this looks like in Christian life. The model, of course, is Christ, our Lord, who on the cross showed us that divine power is perfectly expressed in what our world sees as weakness, but in reality uses the tools of the enemy—sin, suffering, and death (which the enemy introduced into humanity as the consequence of the Fall)—and turn them into the tools of Christian virtue—mercy, joy, and love.
Our Gospel reading is the continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke. “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘To you who hear, I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.’” Perhaps there’s someone who cost you a job; maybe destroyed your marriage; someone who hurt or killed a friend or family member; someone who assaulted or violated you or a loved one; someone who never stops gossiping, or is a constant drain on your nerves? The one who always causes problems in your family, or at work, or in your neighborhood? Someone who broke your heart, someone who seems to look for ways to cause you problems. Maybe the person who drove slowly in front of you or didn’t use their blinkers. Maybe there’s a politician or someone in the church; anyone from the person who you ignore to the person who fills you with rage, all of them, Jesus tells us, we must love them, do good to them, bless them, and pray for them. That’s what it is to deny ourselves, pick up our cross daily, and to follow Him. It’s the example He gave from the cross, as He prayed to the Father for the forgiveness of those who hated and crucified Him.
The logic of Jesus’ instructions here is the same “Logic of the Kingdom” evident in the Beatitudes. It is not the self, not victory, not retaliation, not pleasure, not earthly power or riches, that makes one happy. It is agape love, self-giving, generous, appreciative, caring love that is the only thing that truly makes us happy. Because we are made in the image of God, and it is the divine love exchanged within the Holy Trinity that truly makes us happy. That is what we are made for. That is the love of the Kingdom of God. That is the love that Christ embraced in allowing himself to be brutally and tortuously crucified, because he knew that by it, humanity would be freed from slavery to sin, and have the invitation to the divine life of grace.
The key to the Christian life, to imitating Christ, and the saints, is the difference between reacting naturally, and responding supernaturally. We all have our habitual way of dealing with people and events when they affect us negatively. And if we don’t think about it, we give our natural reaction. The problem is that our nature is fallen and inclined to sin, to selfishness and pride, to fear and impatience. So that’s the nature of our natural reaction—often self-oriented and sinful. But we are rational human beings, we can choose how we respond. And we are Christians infused with divine grace, so we can do better, and are called to do better, than the reflex of our fallen nature. We are called to be supernatural in a natural world; to draw our response from supernatural grace, rather than our natural inclination.
“For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners…” So Jesus here is saying that to confine ourselves to what makes sense even on the natural level, is not to make a supernatural, transcendent choice. If we’re going to receive what we give, then it’s merely an even exchange; it is not virtuously generous and self-sacrificing.
Jesus teaches us, “But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Good thing for us, too, isn’t it? As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans (5:8), “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” God, in Christ, showed us what kind of forgiving, generous love He has for us, even while we rail against Him. That is the kind of forgiving, generous love we as Christians are called to have and to show to others. “Be merciful, as your heavenly father is merciful,” Jesus tells us.
How do we live faith? We make a sacrifice that won’t be justly repaid in this world, but relies on our faith that it might be repaid in the kingdom, in heaven. That’s where we are to put up our treasure. And we can’t just rely on our natural goodness, however developed that might or might not be. We rely on the grace from God, the divine love of Christ within us, by which we are made children of the Most High. And it’s going to take that grace, isn’t it, to love the one who did the worst imaginable sin against you or your family? To pray for the forgiveness and salvation of the worst person in your life.
Saint Vincent de Paul was well known for practicing “the pause.” This is also a modern piece of wisdom you can practice, especially when you’re already stressed out and someone’s about to make you lose your… serenity. But Saint Vincent de Paul was known for having a short moment before he would respond to someone. And he said, in that moment, that pause, he would pray, that his response would be holy, would be beneficial for the salvation of himself and for those he was speaking with. That little pause of prayer, of inviting God’s grace into that moment, is an example of learning to go beyond having a natural, reflexive reaction, to reaching up to having a supernatural, chosen response. Practice the pause.
“Stop judging and you will not be judged.” That’s a popular one today, isn’t it? In recent times, it’s been the battle cry of relativists, those who oppose an objective belief in right and wrong moral acts, and Christians taking a moral stand on a social moral issue. Jesus’ words are true, of course. We don’t judge people. Or at least we shouldn’t. I have found it very useful to apply what’s called “Hanlon’s Razor,” which says, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” In other words, be charitable in your assumptions of someone else’s reasons for acting a certain way: “Don’t assume someone did something to be mean if they reasonably just might have done it out of a lack of awareness.”
So we don’t judge people as evil. But we can and should judge actions as sinful. For example, abortion is a sin. That doesn’t mean we call someone who just had an abortion a hell-bound murderer. It means we love and pray for them, because it’s quite possible they might be suffering, or soon suffer, horrible regret for what we know is sinful, and they did out of ignorance, or fear, or pressure. That kind of patience and compassion is how we would want God to minister to us, and so that is how we minister to others. We certainly don’t help people experience the love of God when we confirm stereotypes of Christians as condemning people and presuming to know their disposition in God’s view. And yet that is quite different than those who pray and offer support outside of an abortion clinic, and are accused by customers and staff for aggressively imposing their religion or harassing customers, if this isn’t really the case.
In our first reading, David as a young man, gives us an example of our gospel lesson. King Saul (Israel’s first king, whose later death would lead to the accession of his successor, David) was an incompetent, jealous, and insecure king who hated the young David because David was more popular. Our reading says Saul went out with three thousand men against David. Three thousand men!? That’s a lot of hatred in Saul’s heart. When David and his friend found Saul and his army asleep, his friend offered to kill Saul on the spot. But David wouldn’t let him, and instead simply stole Saul’s spear and water jug from near his head, to later show Saul that David had been given the chance to react to Saul’s hatred by David’s own act of hatred—to kill Saul—but David instead chose mercy, and hopefully Saul himself would respond with mercy. Which he later did.
In the next verse after our reading—the last verse of the chapter, it says, “Then Saul said to David: ‘Blessed are you, my son David! You shall certainly succeed in whatever you undertake.’ David went his way, and Saul returned to his place.“
If David had killed Saul, Saul would have died with that hatred in his heart. David gave him the opportunity to convert to forgiveness, and reconcile their relationship. And doing so, David might have saved Saul’s soul. That’s a real display of love for one’s enemies, and hope for their salvation.
Our fallen human nature tends to think predominantly in physical terms. We’ve seen images of Jesus all muscled out like he’s on steroids… Rambo Jesus. That’s a depiction of Jesus’ power, interpreted through an all-too-human lens. Jesus, physically, was fit. He was a carpenter, he labored with his physical body. And of course the real strength of Jesus was beyond powerful. But not because of his muscles. Rather, because of his virtue, his meekness, his humility, his willingness to serve and to suffer for others. “Super Buff Jesus” completely misses the point of Jesus’ true message of divine power, a power that even the tiny Mother Teresa could manifest.
Likewise, our fallen human nature often looks to solve problems at the physical level, even when the problems are not essentially physical problems. Very often, our problems are spiritual problems. The most important problems of our world are never going to be solved by legislation, by resolutions, by summits, by international councils. The most important problems of our world are spiritual problems… Satan, evil, and sin. And so our most important tools for combatting these spiritual problems—our most important weapons against our real spiritual enemies—are not guns, walls, and resolutions, but prayers, Masses, and saints. As Boenhoffer said, “So what shall we do? We shall pray. It will be a prayer of earnest love for those who stand around and gaze at us with eyes aflame with hatred.” As Dr. MLK, Jr., said, “Do to us what you will, and we will still love you.” The weapons of prayer, humility, and trust in divine love are far more powerful than any military force. And it is only these that are effective against the true enemy of world peace. To quote Alfred Lord Tennyson, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”
I recently uploaded the recording and transcript of an incredible lecture by Dr. Peter Kreeft on how we might successfully wage the culture war to save our world. I highly recommend it! We cannot fight and win this battle at the level of our fallen humanity, with the weapons of human warfare. We can only successfully fight and win this battle—this war—with the weapons of Christ: sanctity, virtue, prayer, and divine mercy.
Paul in our second reading speaks about the image we provide. We first have the image of Adam—natural humanity, which was then by Adam distorted and corrupted by sin, and our actions and fallen nature reflect that. But we are called to reflect the New Adam, the spiritual man, not by nature, but by choice and faith, to resemble Christ, by the grace within us, and our response to it—our life of grace. “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.” So let us make the effort to heal from our old sinful habits of the flesh and instead cultivate new spiritual habits of grace, that we might give witness to the beautiful life that all humanity is called to: life in union with Our Lord Jesus Christ: the divine life of mercy, joy, and love.