Today’s readings remind us of how challenging living the Gospel can be and serve to remind us of why, each year, we need times like the Season of Lent to give us time to reflect on how we are doing.
The Gospel today is from Matthew – Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It features some of the most beautiful – but also the most challenging – of Jesus’ teachings. In it, Jesus frequently cites a well-known law from the Jewish Torah – from the Jewish Scriptures – or what we call the Old or First Testament. Then he gives a teaching which pushes beyond that law and says “You have heard it said … but now I say to you.” In Matthew’s Gospel, a prominent subtext is Jesus as the new Moses giving us a new law.
Here Jesus says, the old way was to love those who were part of your community, but to hate those outside of it. Jesus takes that and pushes it aside and says, as his followers, that we should also love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Doing so shows we are children of God who cares for all equally.
Unsurprisingly, this is very hard for us to do – to genuinely strive to respond with love for those who hate us! As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously pointed out – this love for enemies doesn’t mean that we have to “like” our enemies. Jesus never said to “like your enemies.” He said we must love them. Dr. King pointed out that the word used by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (which was written originally in Greek) is a Greek word – “agape.”
Agape is one of three words used in Greek to speak about love. It isn’t a type of love that is about good feelings, nor is it about romantic love. There are other words in Greek for those types of love. Agape is the highest form of love – a call to universal good will and care for the other person without bounds. Jesus says when we love our enemies we must have “agape” for them – we must move beyond the hurt they have caused, and seek their best well-being.
And Jesus’ teaching reminds us that when we do this, it sets us – as followers of Christ – apart. When we choose to love our enemies – or as Dr. King put it, when we find the “strength to love our enemies,”- strength given by the Holy Spirit of course – we show the truth and beauty of the message of Christ to others. As the song says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love!” – by our “agape.”
And the first reading reminds us that following God’s commands – even this hard one given by Christ – brings newness of life. It allows us to be set free from hatred. It prevents righteous anger from becoming bitterness. It sets us free to be who God wants us to be.
And isn’t that what Lent is all about?
Let us pray, then, that all of us may know the blessing that the psalm speaks about as we strive to follow Christ’s law. Let us ask for the spiritual strength to show agape love when it is easy, but especially when it is hard.
God give you peace!
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As Director of Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), I have the opportunity to record video reflections on the readings of the Scriptures proclaimed at daily Mass. I do so as part of larger group of colleagues at the Conference, along with lay and ordained leaders from around the country. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the readings for the life of faith today and to share them here, along with the written text of the reflections. To view these video reflections for past and upcoming celebrations of the Eucharist, visit the USCCB website.