This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 5:38-48:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Few questions in human experience are as existential as these: Who is my friend? Who is my enemy? War and strife go back farther than written history; in fact, most of our earliest written history deals with war and conquest, and the annihilation of entire cultures. Even our earliest Scriptures deal with these questions. The serpent in the Garden posed as a friend to Adam and Eve, and betrayed then into betraying God. Cain slew Abel out of jealousy for his brother’s relationship with the Lord. Lot found out the hard way that his friends could rapidly become his enemies, and found himself rescued only by the grace of God.
A few generations later, Joseph also found out that distinguishing between friends and enemies could be difficult. In a way, his brothers repeated the example of Cain and Abel by selling Joseph into slavery out of spite and jealousy. Joseph, however, rose to a position of power in Egypt and earned the trust of the pharaoh. After a famine struck the land, Joseph could have used that power to destroy his brothers and their families, since they had clearly treated him as their enemy and wanted him dead, even if not directly by their own hands. Instead, Joseph used his power to assist them and bring them to where they would not starve, and where the nation of Abraham could continue to grow. Rather than return harm for harm, Joseph understood that the entire arc had been the will of God, and tearfully reunited with his family (Genesis 45 – 50).
Who were Joseph’s enemies? He was mistreated by both his own family and then the Egyptians for a time, so in one sense it’s difficult to name Joseph’s friends. Rather than respond in kind, Joseph acted in the best interests of all, trusting in the Lord that His will would unfold and bless Joseph. By the time of Joseph’s death, it would appear that Joseph had no enemies at all — only neighbors and friends.
Four hundred years later, that situation had changed dramatically. The Egyptians had yoked the Israelites in cruel bondage, having long ago forgotten Joseph’s kindness. The Lord led the Israelites out of Egypt not by having them rebel, but by delivering them through a series of plagues visited on the Egyptians by the Lord. Having drawn them out, the Lord then gives the law to Moses, including our first reading today (Leviticus 19):
The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.
“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”
Note here the distinction between “hatred” and “reprove.” The call to love our neighbors as ourselves does not mean that we cannot judge their actions and offer criticism and correction. (Indeed, Leviticus is filled with instructions on why, how, and when to do just that.) But the Lord makes clear that these should not fill our hearts with hatred for our brothers and sisters, which then becomes sin in ourselves and worthy of rebuke itself. “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people,” the Lord demands, but love all as we love ourselves.
This, however, raises another question: just who are our neighbors? Before Christ, the answer seemed to be those within the Israelite community. However, the original mission of the Israelites was not just to be a community or nation for its own purposes, but to become a nation of priests that would spread the word of God to all nations. All nations would come to Jerusalem, the Lord declared and the prophets repeated, and Jerusalem should stand firm with the Lord in order to convert all. In that sense, everyone would have been the neighbor of the Israelites.
This is the calling which Jesus reminds His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. It is not enough to love one’s neighbors when they love you. That, as Jesus said, is hardly a calling — it’s a basic human instinct. Even the tax collectors of that time loved the other tax collectors, if for no other reason than a sense of survival. True love of neighbor — caritas or agape, the self-sacrificing love that Christ would soon demonstrate on the cross as the sacrifice for all mankind — means loving all as neighbors.
Jesus foreshadows the Great Commission of the final chapters of Matthew in this passage. He will reverse the direction of the mission of the Israelites by sending them to all nations, armed with the Gospel and the Holy Spirit. The story of Joseph provides its own foreshadowing of the Great Commission, a journey to a foreign land that results in the salvation of God’s people. The new mission of salvation will not just save God’s people, but will make all nations God’s people.
It is no easy task to refuse to cherish grudges and to keep hate from entering our hearts. If it was, we would not have needed Christ as a sacrifice for our sins. This hard teaching from the Sermon on the Mount tells us to be very careful about drawing those distinctions and naming people as enemies, especially amongst ourselves, because we do not see the long arc of God’s will. Paul writes about this in his first letter to the Corinthians:
If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God, for it is written: God catches the wise in their own ruses, and again: The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.
Rather than judge his family as enemies, and his slave masters as enemies, Joseph trusted in the Lord and dealt with all in holiness. Jesus calls us to do the same — to recognize the limits of our own wisdom, and to put our trust in Him instead so that we may see all humanity as brothers and sisters of the one God. That, Jesus tells us, is the holiness and perfection to which we must all strive, through His grace and forgiveness.
The front page image is “L’Egypte sauvée par Joseph” (Egypt is Saved by Joseph), 1827, by Alexandre-Denis-Abel de Pujol. Currently on display in the Louvre.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.