Love Your Enemies

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

David Takes Saul’s Spear and Water Bottle  by James Tissot

David Takes Saul’s Spear and Water Bottle by James Tissot

We’re doing some renovation in the church for the next few weeks so we’re having Mass in the gym where we don’t have any recording equipment. So, until then I’ll post written versions of my sermons.

Our readings for this Sunday focus on love of enemies. And let’s be honest, loving your enemies has to be the most difficult form of love there is. And yet I think we all know deep down that it’s the most distinctively Christian thing there is. The whole point of being Christian, of course, is to become like Christ. Christ who even forgave his tormentors as they were nailing him to the cross. Or you can think of so many saints, martyrs especially, who went to their deaths blessing and praying for their executioners. Love of enemies is not an optional Christian virtue; it’s really the essence of what it means to be Christian.

Starting with our first reading, we’re invited to think about how to love a particular kind of enemy. In the scenario presented in this reading the enemy is an authority figure in God’s Kingdom. It’s the story of King Saul and David, who would become King of Israel after Saul. And the background to the part of the story we hear today is, Saul had begun persecuting David. David was more popular than Saul; he was destined to succeed him as king. So Saul turned on David. Out of jealousy and fear Saul was trying to hunt David down and kill him. So David fled, and in the course of those events one day David found Saul and his men sleeping, which is where our reading for today picks up the story. This is David’s chance to put an end to the persecution. He could simply kill Saul in his sleep and take over as king. Get it all over and done with. But instead David chooses to have mercy on his enemy Saul. He decides to let him live even though that means continued danger to his own life. And David’s reason for not killing Saul is significant. He says, “Do not harm him, for who can lay hands on the Lord’s anointed and remain unpunished?…though the Lord delivered [Saul] into my grasp, I would not harm the Lord’s anointed.” David recognized that, even though Saul had become his enemy, Saul was still chosen by God. He was still anointed to be king of God’s people. Even though he had to protect himself from Saul, David still had respect for Saul’s office, which God himself had given him. And so in his own way David chooses to love his enemy and spare his life. David understands that there’s more at stake than his personal struggle with Saul. This is also about what’s best for the whole Kingdom of God. And he knows that killing Saul, while it would be good for him in certain ways, would ultimately harm God’s kingdom. Saul is still the Lord’s anointed one, and David respects that.

Here’s where I’m going with this. There’s a principle here that we might apply to our own experience within the Church, God’s kingdom on earth in our own time. God’s kingdom in the form of the Church also has authority figures, anointed ones appointed by God. The Church has its own “Sauls,” not kings, but bishops and priests. Bishops and priests are literally anointed with sacred oil at their ordinations to signify the authority given to them by God and the dignity of their office, which is meant to be exercised in service to God’s people. And yet, perhaps in a way similar to King Saul, bishops and priests sometimes abuse their authority. We’ve heard so much in recent months about how ugly that can be. The whole story of ex-Cardinal McCarrick abusing seminarians and others; priests who have abused children; other priests and bishops who, in the face of those problems, have too often been incompetent at best and complicit at worst. Authority figures in God’s kingdom who have killed people’s faith, killed the good name of the Catholic Church. Made themselves enemies of the Church. And faithful Catholics are then left wondering how to respond to it all. Some leave the Church, we all know that. Others look for a form of Catholicism that minimizes or even eliminates the role of the hierarchy. Well, in a way, I think David’s approach to Saul can apply to the Church’s situation today. David had mercy toward Saul, not because Saul deserved it, but because he respected the office Saul held, and in spite of everything he trusted that Saul’s authority was from God. In a similar way, I think faithful Catholics can have that kind of attitude toward the hierarchy of the Church during a difficult time such as ours. That we can bear in mind that even though way too many priests and bishops have abused their authority, we can still trust that those positions of authority in the Church are from God. Now, I’m not saying that anyone should turn a blind eye to what members of the hierarchy have done wrong, that somehow people should just let it slide. Or that people shouldn’t work, to the extent that they’re able, for legitimate reform in the Church so that those kinds of heinous abuses don’t happen again. But to do that and still have respect for the sacred office of priest and bishop to still trust that the authority structure of the Church is from God and that because of that God will get his way in the end—there would be a certain kind of love of enemies in that.

That’s one particular example of how love for enemies might be put into practice. Turning to our second reading and our Gospel, we can think about love of enemies in a more general way. Our second reading helps us think about why we should love our enemies. St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.” He’s talking about how, as Christians, we’re called to be reflections of Jesus. We bear his image. Again, Jesus who forgave the people who nailed him to the cross while they were in the very act. It’s his image we bear; that’s what it is to be a Christian. It suggests that, just as we couldn’t even imagine Jesus failing to love his enemies, we have this calling to be unable to even imagine ourselves failing to love our enemies. Extraordinarily difficult, I know. Yet it’s what we’re called to because we bear Christ’s image, and by his grace it is possible to love enemies. It helps us ponder what a high calling we’ve been given as Christians. Why would we want to love our enemies? Because when we do, we make Jesus that much more present in the world. We reflect him that much more clearly. His image that we bear becomes that much more visible.

And then in the Gospel, we’re confronted with Jesus’ own very clear teaching on this. Jesus’ words are so clear they hardly need commentary, really. Mark Twain famously said, “It’s not the things in the Bible I don’t understand that trouble me, but the things I do understand.” Troubling because once you understand, there’s nothing left but the hard work of putting it into practice. So Jesus gives us our marching orders, plain as day: “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” I don’t know about all of you, but I know for myself at least that that’s a lifetime’s worth of things to work on right there. But it’s exactly the kind of work that makes us Christians through and through if we take it seriously. Today we’re invited to trust that by God’s grace we can truly be people who love our enemies, and by doing so we can be the very image of Jesus in our world.

1st Reading: 1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13

2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:45-49

Gospel: Luke 6:27-38