17th Sunday after Pentecost
The Gospel reading for today is one of the shortest of the Sunday Gospels. It is only six verses long, yet in those six short verses we are given an advanced course in the spiritual life! Listen again to what we heard in today’s reading:
‘And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore, be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.’
This admonition of our Lord is commonly referred to as ‘the Golden Rule’… that we should ‘do unto others as we would have them do unto us’. This is, at one level, the foundation of basic courtesy and a civilized order among human beings. But it is also a profound and foundational spiritual truth which opens the gateway toward the keys to our Christian life: self-denial and Christ-like love.
Today’s Gospel goes on to say that if we love only those who love us, and do good only to those who do good to us, what do we have to boast about? For this is natural to any human being and can even be a source of feeding our own pride and selfishness. If we are motivated to love by an expectation of being loved in return, this is not the self-denying and self-emptying love which God speaks of. And this is why we hear in today’s Gospel the admonition that we are to love our enemies. We are to love and to be merciful, expecting and hoping for nothing in return. In loving our enemies we create a situation of imbalance which challenges and threatens our human will… we are thrust into the arena of loving with no strings attached, with no expectations of reward or reciprocity… simply and generously pouring ourselves out in a spirit of self-denial and demonstration of the love of God. This kind of love to which Christ calls us is dependent upon the state of the giver and not upon the state of the receiver.
For this is precisely the nature and the generosity of the love of God. In the Gospel of Matthew, we hear Christ say that if we are to be children of our Father, we must love as God loves… and that our Heavenly Father ‘makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain upon the just and on the unjust.’
God loves. That love is an integral aspect of His very Being and that love radiates from Him as the rays of light radiate from the sun. The sun does not discriminate about who may receive its light, it simply shines upon us… upon the just and the unjust alike.
Our experience of the warmth and light of the sun will differ depending on whether we place ourselves in direct sunlight or whether we retreat to the shadows. The more we seek the darkened places, the less light we may receive. If we place ourselves deep in a cave, we may find ourselves in complete darkness. It is not that the sun has stopped shining… it is that we have removed ourselves from the place where we can receive it.
It is precisely the same with the love of God. The love of God shines upon us indiscriminately and generously. It is by our choices, by our sins, that we retreat from the light of God’s love and experience the shadows and darkness.
And sometimes it may be that we have not run into the shadows of our own will and desires… sometimes the circumstances of life may descend upon us like a bank of fog. In such difficulties it may be hard for us to remember or to believe that the light of Christ is still shining. But we must understand and trust that this light and love of God does indeed remain true and constant. If we can lift our heads above the clouds, we will see the blue sky and radiance of the light once again.
This love and light of God which shines upon the saint and the sinner, is a manifestation of Who God is. This radiant grace which flows from God is constant and unchanging.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, you and I are called to ignite within our hearts such a flame of grace. The love to which God calls us is this radiance of the grace of God. It is a matter of the disposition of our heart and not the circumstances of a situation or the worthiness of another. A heart that is illumined by the grace and the love of God, spills out that grace and love on all those around him or her. It is in this way that we can actually come to love our enemies - for the origin of the love for another is not based on their merits, it is based upon the communion of love which is taking place in a heart that burns with the grace of God.
I think it is important to add here that the call to love our enemies is not a call to mindless submission to evil. By no means! As Christ said, we are to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. What does this mean? It means that our hearts must indeed be aflame with that generous, self-giving love of God, and that our minds must also discern what is right and what is wrong, what is safe and what is dangerous, what is healthy and what is unhealthy for us and for those around us. We hear constantly in the world today that if you are loving, then you must tolerate and approve of everything. This is madness… True love will never tolerate evil and sin. A loving heart will not judge or condemn, but love must seek the good for ourselves and for others. And where evil and sin are compromising and destroying what is good, a truly loving heart will grieve and will pray and will seek to correct and heal that which is wrong.
God grant us this loving heart which seeks first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness - which looks upon all mankind as our brothers and sisters and prays for the good of all. May that ‘golden rule’ of treating others as we would wish to be treated inform and guide our dealings with one another, that we may fulfill the calling of Christ to be conduits of His light in this darkened world.