Scripture and the Liturgy

Loving Your Haters: 7th Sun. of OT (Feb 20)

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In many years, we wouldn’t have a seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, because of how Lent usually falls, but we do this year, and it is providential, because the teachings of the Readings for this Lord’s Day are particularly relevant.  The Readings are united by the theme of love for enemies, which is one of the most difficult forms of love to practice.  The First Reading and the Gospel show that, in both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant eras, God is on the side of those who pay back hatred with love.

1. Our First Reading is 1 Sam 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23:

In those days, Saul went down to the desert of Ziph
with three thousand picked men of Israel,
to search for David in the desert of Ziph.
So David and Abishai went among Saul’s soldiers by night
and found Saul lying asleep within the barricade,
with his spear thrust into the ground at his head
and Abner and his men sleeping around him.

Abishai whispered to David:
“God has delivered your enemy into your grasp this day.
Let me nail him to the ground with one thrust of the spear;
I will not need a second thrust!”
But David said to Abishai, “Do not harm him,
for who can lay hands on the LORD’s anointed and remain unpunished?”
So David took the spear and the water jug from their place at Saul’s head, and they got away without anyone’s seeing or knowing or awakening. All remained asleep, because the LORD had put them into a deep slumber.

Going across to an opposite slope,
David stood on a remote hilltop
at a great distance from Abner, son of Ner, and the troops.
He said: “Here is the king’s spear.
Let an attendant come over to get it.
The LORD will reward each man for his justice and faithfulness.
Today, though the LORD delivered you into my grasp,
I would not harm the LORD’s anointed.”

This First Reading teaches us an important lesson about how to handle one of the most difficult kinds of “enemies” we may face: what if one’s enemy is an authority figure, especially within the kingdom of God itself?  That was the dilemma the young David had to face.  Saul, the leader of God’s people, duly and properly anointed king by the prophet Samuel himself, had wrongfully turned on David and, motivated by jealousy and fear, was attempting to kill him.

David fled from Saul, but Saul pursued with troops.  On the occasion recounted in this Reading, David snuck into Saul’s camp at night and found himself with the opportunity to assassinate Saul.  Surely this was tempting, and may have looked like a providential opportunity to David.  Hadn’t God put all the soldiers into a deep sleep just so David could dispatch his enemy?  Wouldn’t it be better to end Saul’s reign now, and let the righteous David begin his own reign? 

But David refused to slay Saul, for a basic reason: “I will not harm the Lord’s anointed.”  Saul was not just a private person, he was a sacred office bearer.  He was the head of the people of God, and despite his personal corruption, he held that office legitimately.  David knew that to kill Saul was not just an act of personal revenge, but it was a challenge to the authority structure of God’s people and an invitation to civil war among the Israelites.  The political instability and civil war that would ensue when David slew Saul was not worth the temporary relief that it would bring to David.  But more than that, to kill Saul was an assault of the sacred office of the kingship and, indirectly, an assault on God’s authority itself.  This was something David was not willing to do. 

David’s restraint proved to be wise, because it established among his men the principle that one does not “lift one’s hand against the LORD’s anointed.”  David, too, was an anointed of the LORD, and in time he would replace Saul as king.  Had David set an example of assassination, he would likely have been assassinated himself at a later point in his career. But because he didn’t, he was not himself ever assassinated, and political assassination was very rare in his dynasty, causing the Davidic dynasty to last a little over 400 years—the longest-lived dynasty in the ancient Near East!

This principle still applies in the Church, which is both the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of David, since it is ruled by the Son of David.  It applies to our anointed leaders, the hierarchy: priests, bishops, and the Pope. 

The failings, moral and otherwise, of the clergy cannot be handled in exactly the same way as the failures of the rest of the members of God’s people, because they hold a sacred office which requires respect even when their behavior is not commensurate.  In the military there is a saying, “You salute the uniform, not the man.”  Those who spend their careers in the military soon learn that a wide variety of characters inhabit the uniform, from the admirable to the reprehensible.  But for the military, as a body, to operate successfully, proper respect and chain of command have to be observed, and this is more important than any individual decision or decision-maker.

In David’s case, he was faced with the awful situation that the sacred leader of God’s people had become somewhat deranged and was trying to kill him.  Talk about a sign of contradiction!  It would have been easy for David to lose his faith in God’s providence and just give in to Realpolitik. David did take steps to protect himself, and he fled from Saul, but he also refused to start a civil war within God’s people that would have led to their certain defeat at the hands of their enemies.

This is a lesson of restraint for those of us in the Church today, as well.  In recent months, a large amount of “dirt” has been exposed from various members of the hierarchy, and it can be tempting to start a verbal or legal civil war within the Church against the perceived or real malefactors.  But here is where faith needs to come in.  God’s people need to trust that God will judge his leaders, as he promises to do (Ezek 34:10).  There are, of course, proper avenues to civil authorities, and to appeal to the bishop, and to the Pope. It is proper to call for the Church herself to exercise her own policies and disciplines, which had they been observed in the first place would have prevented the situation we are now in. Failings of the successor of Peter are the most difficult to accept, because there is no appeal to a human authority above him. The Pope himself is answerable to God, and we lack faith if we think it would be better if he were answerable to us or some committee.

St. Josemaria held up the example of Noah’s righteous sons as a guide for our behavior toward priests.  Noah’s sons covered the nakedness of their father, and St. Josemaria counseled us not to call attention to the failings of our fathers but to present their best qualities.  There are limits to this principle, of course, because we cannot become complicit in crimes. But for the sake of unity and charity within the Church, we make every effort to avoid direct conflict or attacks on those who have been anointed as the leaders of God’s kingdom manifest on earth.  The results of open warfare within God’s Church—for example, the Reformation—are often worse than the abuses they were meant to rectify, without minimizing the abuses.  This is a hard principle to remember and practice in a moment when we are so conscious of the way some have taken advantage of the respect due their office to harm others.  Yet if we think that the revenge human beings could inflict on such persons would be more just than the judgement they will face before the risen Christ, we are gravely mistaken. Despite some modern misconceptions, God is a God of both mercy and justice, and final justice will be executed.  It is an act of faith, sometimes, to leave room for the justice of God rather than to attempt to take it into our own hands. In any event, David, whose son rules over us to this day, set us an example of faith in God and refusal to initiate warfare within God’s people, even when it was provoked.  Let us not try to fight what are essentially spiritual battles with worldly weapons.

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

R. (8a) The Lord is kind and merciful.
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
He pardons all your iniquities,
heals all your ills.
He redeems your life from destruction,
crowns you with kindness and compassion.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
Merciful and gracious is the LORD,
slow to anger and abounding in kindness.
Not according to our sins does he deal with us,
nor does he requite us according to our crimes.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he put our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.

We are very keen on God’s compassion and mercy when it is directed toward us; less so when it is directed toward those we hate or those who’ve hurt us!  We want God to forgive our sins, but not the sins of our enemies!  To us, we want a God of mercy; toward others, we want the God of justice! 

But Jesus’ teaching does not allow for this two-faced approach.  He reminds us: “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 5:15). 

This Psalm reminds us of God’s mercy toward sinners.  David may have been tempted to pray to God to execute justice on Saul.  But later, David entangled himself in adultery and murder (2 Sam 11).  Then, he would throw himself on God’s mercy and plead for forgiveness, bequeathing to us the world’s greatest prayer of repentance (Psalm 51) in the process.

Psalm 103 reminds us that God’s nature is mercy.  Had he not been merciful, the human race would have ended with Adam and Eve’s sinful rebellion.  Let us not give in to the hypocrisy to desire God’s mercy only for ourselves and not for others whose sins we recognize all too well. 

Reading 2 1 Cor 15:45-49

Brothers and sisters:
It is written,
The first man, Adam, became a living being,
the last Adam a life-giving spirit.
But the spiritual was not first;
rather the natural and then the spiritual.
The first man was from the earth, earthly;
the second man, from heaven.
As was the earthly one, so also are the earthly,
and as is the heavenly one, so also are the heavenly.
Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one,
we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.

Again, if we want to bear the image of the one from heaven, we cannot run our lives here on earth according to an earthly logic, in which we “do to others what they do to us.”  This tit-for-tat logic, called “the bronze rule,” was actually advocated by Carl Sagan as superior to the teaching of Christ in one of the last articles he wrote for the nationally syndicated Parade magazine of my youth.  The “earthly man” in David would have speared Saul to the ground.  That’s the logic of the earth.  David showed he was already living in the new covenant in advance, because he had the Holy Spirit (1 Sam 16:13).  David was thinking by a heavenly logic, bearing the image of his greater Son.  To live the merciful life Jesus calls us to, we need to have one foot in heaven already, and be detached from the glory, the money, the health, the pleasures of sex and drugs, and the other lures of this life that can seem so consuming.  Heavenly wisdom recognizes these things as vain and not worth fighting for.  This frees us to love and forgive.

Gospel Lk 6:27-38

Jesus said to his disciples:
“To you who hear I say,
love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
To the person who strikes you on one cheek,
offer the other one as well,
and from the person who takes your cloak,
do not withhold even your tunic.
Give to everyone who asks of you,
and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
For if you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
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?
Even sinners do the same.
If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners,
and get back the same amount.
But rather, love your enemies and do good to them,
and lend expecting nothing back;
then your reward will be great
and you will be children of the Most High,
for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give, and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.”

Jesus’ teaching here goes beyond that of most great moral teachers of mankind, for very few, if any, ever reached the point of extending love towards even one’s enemies.  Most of Jesus’ teaching here requires no exposition, because his meaning is clear.  He does not rule out self-defense—notice he does not say,
“If someone thrusts a spear at you, open your chest and receive it.”  The offenses Our Lord describes are non-lethal.  But that is not to eviscerate the challenge that Our Lord’s teachings pose. The lifestyle Jesus describes is one of poverty, in which one is not attached to wealth and status.  The one Jesus describes is so confident in the Father’s provision for him that he is not afraid to part with money, clothing, and possessions, knowing that his heavenly Father can easily replace them. Although we may boast about being disciples of Christ or having correct doctrine or supporting the orthodox teaching of the Church, nonetheless it is only too easy to fall into associating only with other “good Catholics” and trying to avoid dealing with other types who may not agree with us or appreciate our values.  Maybe this week we can search our hearts in prayer for those toward whom we harbor the most resentment, and then resolve to make some act of kindness toward that person, or at least offer some sacrifices and prayer for their well-being and salvation.

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