Commentary on the Readings
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 24, 2019 – Year C
What do you do for free?
Ernesto says in front of his colleagues at school: “I respect everyone, but if they kidnap my child I certainly will kill the responsible.”
Joseph is an employee; one day he comes home upset by anger for the injustice suffered and confides to his wife: “I have to make Luigi pay! When he will need a favor, he will have to ask me on his knees and I will make him wait until when I want.”
The jeweler George was robbed three times by robbers and was also threatened with death; now he keeps a gun at hand to defend himself.
Let’s evaluate these three attitudes.
We all agree in considering that Ernesto, Joseph, and George are not wicked: They do not attack those who do good, merely they react against those who do evil. Violence, retaliation, revenge have their own logic and can be justified.
Maybe we do not share the way they intend to restore justice, but the goal that the three aim is not evil. They just want to punish and deter those who commit reprehensible actions. We could say that they are just people: They respond good with the good and evil to what is evil. But is it enough to be considered Christians by being just?
Who is inwardly transformed by love and by the Spirit of Christ goes beyond the logic of people and places in the world a new sign: the love towards those who do not deserve it.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Love your enemies, to be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
David was not one to let himself soften in the face of enemies or forget the evil that had been done to him (1 K 2:1-9). He committed many crimes; he soiled his hands shedding much blood (1 Chr 22:8), but the episode narrated in the today’s reading shows that in him there were noble and generous sentiments.
Here’s the fact: Saul is chasing him and, at night, he camps in the wilderness of Ziph. David sees him and decides to meet him. The venture is risky, but Abishai his nephew, a brave warrior, offers to accompany him. The two arrive at Saul’s camp and they found him asleep in the midst the soldiers. Abishai now proposes his solution, right, sacrosanct according to the reasoning of people: “Let me nail him to the ground with one thrust of the spear, I will not repeat it” (v. 8).
David does not listen to him; he chooses forgiveness: “Do not harm him—he says to his nephew—for he is the anointed of the Lord.”
Here we are faced with two opposite ways of thinking. The first—that of Abishai—is dictated by human logic that aims to attack, to destroy those who have done evil, and can continue to be a danger to society. The second—that of David—is unconditional forgiveness.
Jesus—as we will see in today’s Gospel—will make another step forward: he will invite us to go beyond the same forgiveness. He will demand from his disciples that not only to do no harm to the enemy but that they take the initiative to meet him to help him out of his condition. The choice of forgiveness made by David is already a significant step towards the love of the enemy that is preached by the Master.
Why is Saul spared? It is because—David says—despite being guilty, he remains forever the Lord’s anointed. For the same reason, even the worst of criminals cannot be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or even be killed. He is to be loved and helped to recover because he is and will always remain an anointed of the Lord, one in whom the image of God is indelibly marked, although marred.
What will be left of us after death: only our spiritual part (will we be evanescent ghosts, like a zombie) or will we have a body? And, if we will have a body, will it be the same to what we have today? That is an issue much debated at the time of Jesus.
Paul initially shared the views of his teachers, the Pharisees, and claimed that, at the end of the world, everyone would have recovered the body he had in this world (cf. 1 Thes 4:14-17).
This Jewish idea of the resurrection presents considerable difficulties: how God can let a person die and then resurrect the same body is hard to understand. What sense would it be? It would be making a mockery of people. Then, how is it possible to recover a body already dissolved into dust for so long? And which body would be recovered: that of our youth, or that of our old age, ugly, sickly as they generally are at the point of death?
In the light of the resurrection of Jesus, Paul understands better the meaning of the Christian vision of eternal life. Writing to the Corinthians he says that it is not this material body that resurrects. Each person will receive from God a spiritual body. He does not resurrect only a part of us; it is our whole person that enters into the glory of heaven, but with a body entirely different from what we have in this world. A body not made of atoms and molecules.
To explain further, Paul makes a comparison: the seed—he says—is placed in the ground and disappears; it is as if it were dead, yet, after some time, it reappears in a new form of life (1 Cor 15:35-44). Looking at the tree, who would recognize the seed from which it originated? This is what happens to man: his material body (… that sometimes is battered as the dried core of a fruit) is left in the ground. He instead “resurrects” in God’s world for a different life. He does not drag behind the body he had, he is reborn with an incorruptible body, a body that does not need to eat nor to sleep; a body that does not suffer, that does not get sick and can no longer do any experience of death.
In today’s reading, the apostle says that this transformation is not the result of a natural power of man, similar to the one that the seed has within itself. It is the work of the Spirit given in baptism, the Spirit who, as he made Jesus rise from the dead, will raise us also. So, as we have carried in us the image of Adam, the earthly and mortal man, we will receive the resemblance to Christ, the head of the new humanity.
The reading invites us to reflect on the major enigmas of people: death. If at the moment when one passes from this world to that of God marks the birth of the new form of life, then it should not be considered a misfortune, but the nice completeness of our existence in this world.
After proclaiming the disciples blessed because they are poor, hungry, crying, persecuted, Jesus addresses the crowd who listens to him and enunciates a shocking principle: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who treat you badly” (vv. 27-28). Four imperatives—love, do good, bless, pray!—that do not leave any doubt about how a Christian should behave in the face of evil. They are the unequivocal evidence that Jesus rejects, in the strongest terms, the use of violence.
Against the guilty, we react instinctively with aggression. We believe that “making him pay,” justice is restored and everyone is given a lesson in life. Jesus does not agree with such hasty solutions. He repudiates the use of violence because this never improves the situation. It complicates it even more and does not help the wicked to become better. It crushes him, triggers the hatred, awakens the desire for revenge and vengeance. Violence may be able to eliminate it, but not to save it. The only attitude that creates the new is love.
There are Christians who recognize, very honestly, that even trying they will not succeed to love those who caused them irreparable damages: those who have slandered them, ruined their career, destroyed the serenity and peace in their family, who—it happens too—killed a family member.
Jesus does not demand that we become friends of those who do us harm. Not even he felt sympathy for Annas and Caiaphas, the Pharisees, for Herod that he dubbed “fox” (Lk 13:32), for Herodias who had the Baptist killed (Mk 6:14-29). Sympathy is beyond our control; it cannot be ordered, it spontaneously arises between people who respect each other, who are attuned each other.
The Master asks to love, that is not to look to one’s own rights, but to the needs of the other.
It is not enough not to respond to evil with evil, with insult to injury. One has to keep oneself on hand to accept others. It is a must to always make the first step to reach out to those who did wrong, to help them get out of their plight.
It is not easy. That is why prayer is recommended. Only prayer puts off aggression, disarms the heart, communicates the feelings of the Father who is in heaven, gives the strength that comes from God’s love. Prayer for the enemy is the high point of love because it presupposes a heart willing to be purified from all forms of hatred. When one puts oneself before God he or she cannot lie. One can only ask him to fill with good those who do evil; and when one manages to pray like this, the heart becomes attuned with the heart of the Father who is in heaven, “who makes his sun rise on both the wicked and the good, and he gives rain to both the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:45).
In the second part of the passage, Jesus explains his request with four concrete examples: “To the one who strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek; from the one who takes your coat do not keep back your shirt; give to the one who asks and if anyone has taken something from you do not demand it back” (vv. 29-30).
The disciples are not prohibited from demanding justice, from defending their own right, from protecting their properties, honor, and life. They are not cowards who tolerate oppression, abuse of power, harassment towards the weak. Love does not mean to endure in silence, without reacting.
The Christian is very actively committed to putting an end to injustice, bullying, thefts; however, to restore justice, one most reject the methods condemned by the Gospel. A Christian does not resort to arms, violence, falsehood, hatred, revenge. A Christian does not pay evil with evil “… If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty give him to drink…. Do not let evil defeat you, but conquer evil with goodness” (Rom 12:17-21). When one is unable to restore justice with evangelical means, what remains is for the Christian to have patience. This virtue indicates the ability to withstand, to resist under a heavy weight. When the only way that remains open is to hurt a brother, one who is able to support the weight of injustice shows himself a disciple of Christ.
The passage continues with the so-called golden rule: “Do to others as you would have others do to you” (v. 31). It does not mean that we have to take our selfishness as a measure of good to be done. Jesus just gives a wise counsel on what to do to help those in difficulty. He suggests to ask ourselves this question: if we were in his condition, what would we like others to do for us? How would we like to be helped? Would we be happy if they attack us, humiliate us, would use violence to us? Let us be honest when we demand justice for a wrong suffered. Often we do not seek the good of the other, we think only of taking revenge. We observe for example how, in front of an offender, the behavior of the judge is different from that of a mother. The first renders its judgment on the basis of a code and want to reestablish the rule of law; the second passes over to all the codes, she is guided by her love and think only of recovering the child.
In the following verses (vv. 32-34) Jesus considers three cases of “righteous” people: they love those who love them, do good to those from whom they receive good and make loans and then get the requital. These are people who do good deeds, no doubt, but their behavior can still be dictated by calculation, by looking for an edge.
The expression “what credit is that to you?” It is the parallel text of Matthew that speaks of “merits” (Mt 5:46). Luke chooses instead, and with much finesse, another term; he says: “where is your credit?”, that is, “what do you do for free?” It is the gratuity that characterizes the action of the Christian and that allows us to identify, unequivocally, the children of God.
He continues: “Love your enemies” (v. 35). Here it indicates the privileged situation in which it is possible to manifest gratuitous love. Here we touch the pinnacle of Christian ethics.
The proposal of Jesus was prepared by some texts of the Old Testament: “If you see your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, take it back to him. When you see a donkey of a man who hates you, falling under its load, do not pass by but help him” (Ex 23:4-5; cf. Lev 19:17-18,33-34).
Even the wise pagans gave similar advice. We remember those famous ones of Epictetus: “One needs to be beaten like a donkey, and while being beaten, he loves as father of all, as a brother the one who strikes him;” and Seneca: “If you want to imitate the gods, do good also to the ungrateful, because the sun also rises on the wicked.”
Apparently the statements of the aforementioned Stoic philosophers seem identical to those of the Gospel; in reality, they are dictated from a radically different perspective.
“Do good to them and lend where there is nothing to expect in return” suggests Jesus (v. 35). And this recommendation excludes all seeking of one’s own advantage, even spiritual.
Unlike that of the Stoics who were not acting for the good of others, but aiming for the achievement of inner peace, of imperturbability, of complete self-mastery, the disciple does not allow himself to be touched by any selfish thought, any complacency, any search for personal gratification. He does not even think to accumulate merit for heaven. He loves and gives in pure loss.
What reward will those who are led by this selfless love receive?
“It will be great!”—Jesus answers. Will they have a better place in heaven? No, much more: “They will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (v. 35). This will be the prize: the similarity with the Father, his very own happiness, experiencing, already on this earth, the ineffable joy that he experiences in loving without expecting anything in return.
The passage ends with the exhortation to the members of the Christian community to make visible in people’s eyes, the face of the heavenly Father (vv. 36-38).
In the Old Testament, God presents himself with the following words: “The Lord is a God full of pity and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in truth and loving kindness” (Ex 34:6).
Mercy—the first of his features—is not to be identified with compassion, forbearance, forgiveness of injuries. Merciful—in biblical language—means being sensitive to the pain, misfortunes, and needs of the poor and the unfortunate. God does not just feel this emotion but intervenes performing deeds of love and salvation.
Jesus invites his disciples to cultivate feelings and to imitate the actions of the Father who is in heaven. With two prohibitions (do not judge, do not condemn) and two positive warnings (forgive, give), he also explains how to imitate the Father’s behavior.
Those who are in tune with the thoughts, feelings, behavior of God do not pronounce sentences of condemnation against the brother. The Father—who knows the inner hearts—does not do it and will not do it even at the end of time. Those who have a piercing look like the Father, those who see a person as he sees it, condemns no one, is moved only by mercy before one who does wrong (Hos 11:8) and is committed in every way to get him or her back to life.
Consequently, we could summarize the message of the Gospel by saying that there are three categories of people: on the lowest rung are the wicked (those who, while still receiving the good, they do evil); higher are the righteous (those who respond to the good with good and evil with evil); finally there are those who respond to evil with good. Only they are the children of God and they reproduce in themselves the behavior of the Father.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: