Loving and Forgiving Enemies

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Year A

by Fr. Tommy Lane

How do we respond to hurts and offenses? Jesus gives us some valuable teaching in the Gospel today (Matt 5:38-48). Instead of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” forgiving others is practical and logical because if someone plucks out an eye in revenge that does not solve a problem and then there are two people without eyes. Plucking out a tooth in revenge does not solve a problem and then there are two people without teeth. But when Jesus says to offer no resistance to someone who is evil (Matt 5:39) we might wonder if that is wise. Would that allow evil to triumph? In the life of Jesus we see that he did not offer resistance to the evil inflicted on him. As he was being crucified he prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know what they do.” (Luke 23:34) But if we take it into our own hands to eradicate evil might we not run the risk of going too far and end up just trying to assert a victory for the sake of victory?

Jesus continues by teaching us whom to love. Instead of loving only those whom we like or who love us Jesus says to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This is surely good psychology as praying for those who hurt us frees us and gives us peace. Then Jesus says something that may even frighten us. By following his advice we will become sons of our Father in heaven which means if we do not act like this we will not be true sons or daughters of our heavenly Father. It reminds us of Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But there is a second reason why Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors; just as the sun shines on everyone and the rains falls on everyone God does not limit his love only to those who are good, so it is not up to us to decide who deserves our love and who doesn’t. God doesn’t do that so why should we. The verse in today’s Gospel that often causes people difficulty is Jesus’ advice to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48). How could we ever attain the perfection of God? I think the sense of the Greek in which Matthew wrote may be better understood as asking us to take God as our role model in having the same aims and goals as God. (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature p996)

Is there anything that can help us to forgive those who have hurt us? These are some suggestions that I offer to people from time to time:

  • Forgiveness is a decision not an emotion. Hopefully our emotions will follow our decision to forgive but firstly we must decide to forgive.

  • Forgiveness does not mean blotting out painful memories but it means not acting out of them. That is why when the hurt is deep therapy may be necessary to free us from acting out of past negative experiences.

  • When people have difficulty forgiving a hurt I sometimes say to people to repeat to themselves, “I will not allow that person to control my life. I take control of my life back from that person. From now on I will control my life”.

  • Another thought that can help us to forgive is to remember that Jesus died to save the other person just as he died to save you. Try to visualize the person beneath Jesus on the cross. Can you see Jesus dying for that person?

  • Sometimes people say they will forgive if the other person makes an apology. I think that is in some way connected with wanting to control the other person. Forgiving somebody involves giving up the need for an apology and the need to control or dominate the person who hurt us. Surrendering the need to expect them to ask forgiveness frees us to forgive them.

When Mother Teresa accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1979, part of her acceptance speech went like this:

“It is not enough for us to say: ‘I love God, but I do not love my neighbor.’ Saint John says that you are a liar if you say you love God and you don’t love your neighbor. (1 John 4:20) How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you see, whom you touch, with whom you live? And so this is very important for us to realize that love, to be true, has to hurt.”

How can we love like this? We say that to err is human and to forgive is divine. It is a grace to forgive and when the hurt is great we may need to pray a great deal for the grace to forgive. Mother Teresa wrote,

“To be able to love one another, we must pray much, for prayer gives a clean heart and a clean heart can see God in our neighbor. If now we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten how to see God in one another.”

I conclude with a story:

Two friends were walking through the desert. During some point of the journey, they had an argument; and one friend slapped the other one in the face. The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything, wrote in the sand: “Today my best friend slapped me in the face.”

They kept on walking, until they found an oasis, where they decided to take a bath. The one who had been slapped got stuck in the mire and started drowning, but the friend saved him. After he recovered from the near drowning, he wrote on a stone: “Today my best friend saved my life.”

The friend who had slapped and saved his best friend asked him, “after I hurt you, you wrote in the sand and now, you write on a stone, why?” The friend replied “when someone hurts us we should write it down in sand where winds of forgiveness can erase it away. But, when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone where no wind can ever erase it.”

(The above story circulated by email during the 1990’s as “author unknown” and appeared on Christian websites.  Since that time it has also appeared on websites of many faiths, being adapted slightly to suit each faith tradition.  If you have precise information concerning the author when it circulated in Christian newsgroups in the 1990’s I would be happy to acknowledge if you e-mail me. Thanks.)

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2011

This homily was delivered in a parish in Maryland near where I have joined the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

More homilies for the Seventh Sunday Year A

Related homilies: Love your enemies

Forgiving Seventy-Seven Times

Jesus is our Model in Forgiving Others 2011

Love one another just as I have loved You 2013

stories about reconciliation

stories about human forgiveness

stories about God’s mercy