Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. To someone who tells us to “go to hell,” we are to say, “God’s goodness be upon you.” Piece of cake, right? No worries, we can do that. Or maybe we’re thinking “yeah, when pigs fly.”
This passage contains some of the most difficult sayings of Jesus. His radical mandate about loving enemies veers toward the impossible. I suspect there are Sundays like today when what Jesus has to say makes us want to cover our ears or pause the video or think about what we want for lunch. Jesus is saying that the righteousness of this newly launched kingdom of God is more than following rules.
Jesus wants us to pay attention to what is in our heart for that is where it all begins. Still, this is not easy stuff to digest and, let’s be honest, our human nature often goes against this instruction to love, do good to, and forgive enemies and those who do bad things to us and others. Sure, we may not have too hard a time forgiving a spouse or friend who has angered us. But what about real enemies—those we are inclined to loathe or at least want to avoid?
I’m in awe of someone like Antonia Brenner who died at the age of 86. Known as the “Prison Angel,” she left a comfortable life in Beverly Hills to minister in a notorious Mexican prison with a population of 8,000—eventually giving away most of her possessions, putting on a homemade nun’s habit and spending more than 30 years living in a cell to be closer to inmates.
La Mesa was a hellhole where rich drug lords ruled the roost while hundreds of their poorer brethren lived in the cold and squalor amid rats and raw sewage, with no beds, food or even lavatory paper unless their relatives brought supplies. Abusive prison guards contributed to the misery, mistreating the mentally ill and administering cruel interrogations.
Mother Antonia had a neuromuscular disorder called myasthenia gravis when she began working with the poor in Mexico in the 1960s, first providing basic needs like aspirin and eyeglasses for the prison population. She sang in worship services, got a contract to sell soda to the prisoners, and used proceeds to bail out low-level offenders. She prepared those killed in gang fights for burial.
At first the Roman Catholic Church declined to give her its support; for many years, as a divorcée she had been unable to take Holy Communion. Early on in her work at La Mesa, she had taken private vows and when the bishops of Tijuana and San Diego heard of her work, they officially accepted her efforts as part of the ministry of the church and at age 50 she was finally a real “sister.”
That’s when she moved into the women’s section of the prison to a 10 by 10-foot cell. Her mission constantly expanded from inmates to guards to their families. “It’s different to live among people than it is to visit them,” she told The Washington Post in 2002. “I have to be with them in the middle of the night in case someone is stabbed, in case someone has a ruptured appendix, in case someone dies.” This was, for her, the “good measure passed down.”
That’s truly a radical lifestyle. I confess that I could not do that. I suspect not many of us could. But what about less extreme situations of our opportunities to comply with what Jesus asks of us? How easy is it to love our enemies and pray for those who hate and persecute us? Or say or do awful things to others?
How easy it for African-Americans to love white supremacists? Or the parents of LGBTQ persons to pray for those who bullied them that they took their own life? What about the families of those killed by gun violence? Can they love the murderer? Or can the children of parents brutally murdered in a home invasion love the perpetrators? Or someone who betrays you and throws you under the bus? How easy is that?
We may be light years away from loving those who have done severe harm to us—even to pray for them. I imagine that did not come any easier for Mother Antonia. It may have taken months or years for her to get from passing out blankets and toiletries to prisoners to loving them even to death.
“When you know in your heart that something is right, she once said, “that the who you are, that God is calling you to do something, you make the sacrifices you have to make.” Turning the other cheek, giving your cloak, going the extra measure, and giving generously are metaphors—something that casts new light on an otherwise abstract idea—metaphors for the extravagant love God has for us and asks us to share, even to our enemies.
On paper it all looks pretty good. Hearing it in the Sunday Gospel reading it sounds pretty good even if hard to imagine. Is there anyone who thinks that in practice it’s easy? Certainly not me. But because it’s not easy doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In fact, we can only get there by the grace of God.
In the end, when I hear this difficult Gospel, I am challenged by the words of the English novelist, Anna Sewell, who wrote: “There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about religion, but if it does not teach them to be kind to human and beast, it is all a sham.”