2 Corinthians 4:6-15; Luke 6:31-36
People think about how to live a good life in many different ways. Some want rules to follow, regardless of how obedience to them impacts their neighbors. Others focus on achieving the results that they think are best, even though we often cannot predict the consequences of our actions. It is also possible to construe the good life in terms of virtues that become characteristic of people who consistently put them into practice. Someone needs to have good moral character in order to discern what is at stake in obedience to a particular rule or commitment to achieving a given goal. These ethical perspectives all shed at least a measure of light on what it means to become a good person morally. They all lack the ability, however, to make us merciful as God is merciful, which is truly an infinite goal. According to today’s gospel reading, that calling strikes at the heart of what it means to find fulfillment as human persons who bear the divine image and likeness.
Jesus Christ taught that we must treat others as we want others to treat us. That does not apply only to how we interact with our friends, for there is no great virtue in being kind to those with whom we are on good terms. Presumably, even the most corrupt people help one another in their depraved endeavors, such as organized crime. Likewise, those who lend money to people likely to repay their loans do nothing particularly honorable, for “even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.” Christ calls us to something much higher: “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
Our Savior is certainly the perfect model of love for enemies, for He went to the Cross for the salvation of the world without responding in kind to those who rejected, tortured, and killed Him. Even as He was dying, He prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Contrary to many popular distortions of the Christian faith, the path to His Kingdom may not be reduced to any moral or political crusade of this world. Neither is faithfulness to Him merely a matter of intense religious feeling or adherence to a code of behavior. Indeed, it is possible to give ourselves fully to such endeavors in ways that reveal only the abiding sickness of our souls when, for example, we hate those on the other side any debate, place our ultimate hope in any arrangement of the powers of this world, or condemn neighbors whom we deem to be less righteous than ourselves.
The life which Christ shares with us may not be reduced to even the best brought about by the rules, results, or virtues that people may pursue by their own ability, for they are impotent to loose us from slavery to the fear of death, which is at the root of our common corruption. The Savior calls us to something completely different as “partakers of the divine nature” who manifest personally His fulfillment of our vocation to become like God in holiness. Like an iron left in the fire until it becomes literally red hot, those united personally to Christ are to become radiant with the divine energies such that the holiness of the God-Man permeates every dimension of who we are as embodied persons.
The fact that we fall short of loving our neighbors, and especially our enemies, as ourselves indicates that we have an extraordinarily long way to go in becoming merciful like God, to put it mildly. St. Silouan the Athonite saw the love of enemies as a clear sign of the healing presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He taught that when the soul “grows humble, the Lord gives her His grace, and then she prays for her enemies as for herself, and sheds scalding tears for the whole world.” If we are at all honest with ourselves, these words will reveal our need for repentance as we turn away from living according to the passions that make it so appealing to condemn others and turn toward the life of a Kingdom not of this world.
Our frequent failures in loving and forgiving our neighbors should remind us of the truth expressed by Saint Paul in today’s epistle reading. In writing of how “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” shines in our hearts, he states that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of power is from God, and not from us.” Though he is describing his ministry as an apostle in this passage, his words apply to all who pursue the Christian life. When we seek to take up the cross of loving and forgiving people we find to be difficult, we will learn quickly our own inadequacy and weakness. The struggle to embrace Christ’s healing such that His infinite mercy becomes characteristic of us in all that we think, say, and do will be difficult beyond words. Nonetheless, it is only by taking up this intense spiritual battle that we will die to the power of sin in our lives; we must not abandon it when our own imperfection becomes quite evident.
When we fall flat on our faces with anger, resentment, or other passions that keep us from treating others as we would like them to treat us, we must repent with humility. Then we must mindfully take the next step of faithfulness as best we can, as Paul wrote, “knowing that the One who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up through Jesus.” Our hope, then, is not in our own virtue or accomplishment, but in the infinite mercy of the Lord Who offered Himself fully on the Cross for our salvation, even though we had made ourselves His enemies because of our sins. (Rom. 5:10, 8:7) As Paul wrote, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8) The depths of God’s mercy are unfathomable and we must not allow ourselves to despair when we fall short time and time again in loving as we are loved.
Instead, we must use the knowledge of our failures to fuel our humility, calling from the depths of our hearts for mercy. Instead of obsessively recounting the offenses of others, we must focus our minds on the words of the Jesus Prayer as we acknowledge our sinfulness and constant need for grace. We must pray for God’s blessings upon those who have offended us and ask God to forgive our sins by their prayers. By responding to our own struggles to love in spiritually healthy ways, we will grow in empathetic patience with others, especially those who apparently find it hard to be merciful to us. We may even begin to see why we ourselves are not always the easiest people to love and how we have tempted others to see us as their enemies.
Even as we do not ask for what we deserve from God, we must not attempt to treat others according to what we imagine they deserve from us. If we have received the Lord’s mercy, we must extend that mercy to our neighbors, especially those we are inclined to hate, condemn, or otherwise disregard. Even with Christ dwelling in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, we remain earthen vessels, creatures of flesh and blood, whose weakness and inadequacy before our sublime calling will become evident whenever we pursue it with integrity. Our only hope is in the God-Man Who shares His healing and restoration of the human person with us by conquering death and corruption in all their malign forms. The more that we unite ourselves to Christ in humble faith and obedience, the more His mercy will become characteristic of us and the more we will live in a manner befitting the sons and daughters of God, for “He is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish,” even to people like you and me.