Sunday's Gospel: Self-Preservation vs. Love

The following is republished with permission from my column in Catechist Magazine.  For subscription information, visit Catechist.com.

FEBRUARY 19, Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:38-48

In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus continues to examine laws and take us to a deeper, more demanding understanding of them. He continues to follow the “antithesis” formula: “You have heard that it was said ... But I say to you ... ”

This excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount provides us with some of Jesus’ most revolutionary and challenging teachings. First Jesus acknowledges a long-standing law of retribution: “You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'” (verse 38). This ancient way of living in community, though it may sound harsh to our modern ears, was indisputably logical and certainly effective in preventing some crimes. If you knew that if you gouged someone’s eye out, they could lawfully gouge your eye out, you might think twice about doing the gouging in the first place!

And yet, as we might expect, this ancient law was far from Jesus’ ideal. He proceeded to teach something far less logical, something that goes against the grain of just about every human instinct we have: “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” (verse 39). Jesus goes on to offer similar difficult teachings about giving to anyone who asks, and serving anyone who makes a request of you. All of this is to be done without expecting anything in return.

The next antithesis is even more difficult: “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” (verses 43-44). This may be the most-ignored teaching of Jesus in the history of Christianity. How often do we excuse ourselves from it because it seems so extreme? How often do we tell ourselves that Jesus did not mean it for our particular situation? How often do we secretly deem it impossible? Indeed, as Jesus continues to preach, we discover that he wants us to live like God himself: “For he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and unjust” (verse 45). Being like God is a tall order, but Jesus does not say “try” or “sometimes.” He simply says to do it.

Our most basic human instinct is self-preservation. Jesus is challenging this instinct. He wants us to receive his teaching with the total dedication of a true disciple. If we do, our instincts can gradually be reshaped. Self-preservation falls by the wayside as we begin to instinctively act out of love for others. This teaching is as revolutionary now as it was then. To intentionally make sacrifices for the sake of others is the way of Jesus himself, the way of the Cross, the way of true discipleship.

ASK YOURSELF: In what area of my life can I live these difficult teachings? How can I avoid retaliating, even in small ways? How can I show love for someone who is opposed to me in some way?

ASK YOUR STUDENTS: Do you think it is impossible to love someone who is your enemy? How might you learn to do this? When Jesus says we should allow someone to strike us, do you think he means we should allow others to physically hurt us or verbally abuse us? Help your students distinguish between abuse (which should never be tolerated) and situations where they can safely choose not to retaliate (discuss some examples).

PRAY: Lord Jesus, you must think very highly of me to have such wonderful expectations of me! Help me to live up to your expectations. I can only follow your teachings if you help me.

LIVE THE GOSPEL: This week identify someone in your life who may not be an “enemy” but who is difficult to live with, work with, or be around. Ask God daily for the grace to love this person. Pray for this person. Find small, concrete ways to extend kindness to them.

Grisaille (underpainting) of Jesus and Thomas by Jack Baumgartner.  The stance of Jesus in this scene demonstrates the absolute receptiveness of Jesus to the other.  It might be trite to say a picture speaks a thousand words, but this one actually does.  Published with permission.  More of Jack's incredible work can be found here. 

Grisaille (underpainting) of Jesus and Thomas by Jack Baumgartner.  The stance of Jesus in this scene demonstrates the absolute receptiveness of Jesus to the other.  It might be trite to say a picture speaks a thousand words, but this one actually does.  Published with permission.  More of Jack's incredible work can be found here