How do we love perfectly? Jesus gives us some clear examples in our readings for today – and he doesn’t just talk in abstract and generalised terms, he talks in concrete examples that we can apply to our own situations.
‘You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.
‘You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not? You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
Of course, we need to discern each case individually. Because we are also told in the first reading: “You must openly tell him, your neighbour, of his offence; this way you will not take a sin upon yourself.” So by ‘offering the wicked man no resistance’, Jesus does not mean that we should avoid educating him about his wickedness – otherwise we would become willing participants in evil. Jesus is talking here about going above and beyond the call of duty.
These statements by Jesus are the last of his Six Antitheses from the Sermon on the Mount, where he uses the form, ‘You have learnt how it was said … But I say this to you …” Marcion, a second century shipping magnate who used his power and influence to cause a schism in the Church, took this to mean that the God of the Old Testament was mistaken, and that Jesus was correcting him. Henry Chadwick in The Early Church, describes Marcion’s view in these terms:
The Gnostics liked to contrast the God of the Old Testament as the God of justice, whose principle was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, with the loving Father proclaimed by Jesus. This antithesis was especially worked out by Marcion … He wrote a book entitled Antitheses … in which he listed contradictions between the Old and New Testaments to prove that the God of the Jews, the creator of this miserable world, was quite different from the God and Father of Jesus of whose existence the world had no inkling until the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar when Jesus suddenly appeared preaching the Gospel.
Tertullian tells us:
We know full well that Marcion makes his gods unequal: one judicial, harsh, mighty in war; the other mild, placid, and simply good and excellent. (Against Marcion, Book I, Chapter 6)
So desperate was Marcion to demonstrate his case, that he (like many other heretics) then had to change Scripture to suit his interpretation: he rewrote Luke’s Gospel to remove any influence of “Judaising influences” and actually drew up the first canon of Scripture – which excluded all of the Old Testament and much of the New.
What are we to make of Jesus’s statements, then? Pope Benedict XVI, in the Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini says,
The roots of Christianity are found in the Old Testament, and Christianity continually draws nourishment from these roots. Consequently, sound Christian doctrine has always resisted all new forms of Marcionism, which tend, in different ways, to set the Old Testament in opposition to the New.
… It must be observed, however, that the concept of the fulfilment of the Scriptures is a complex one, since it has three dimensions: a basic aspect of continuity with the Old Testament revelation, an aspect of discontinuity and an aspect of fulfilment and transcendence …
Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times.
Back to the Gospel, then. Jesus is in continuity with the Old Testament in so far as he quotes from it (“you have heard it said”), but then he shows how he is fulfilling and transcending this teaching with something even more demanding. He is raising the bar and drawing us into greater union with God.
Where the legal codes of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ found in Exodus are suitable for providing legal limits within a societal and juridical setting, if we apply these principles within our own families, we will be engaged in an endless cycle of retribution for wrongs small and large and never be able to escape the cycle of violence and egotistical score-settling. Jesus is showing us how to love truly – how to have good will even towards those who have no love for us.
In Fr Robert Spitzer’s, New Proofs for the Existence of God, he describes the Five Transcendentals of the Divine Mystery: Perfect Truth, Perfect Love, Perfect Justice/Goodness, Perfect Beauty and Perfect Home, all of which aspects are found in the ultimate unconditioned reality we call God.
So if we relate these attributes of God to our Gospel reading, whereas last week’s antitheses were concerned with Perfect Justice and Goodness in the areas of murder, adultery, divorce and the swearing of oaths, this week’s antitheses, with their focus on vengeance and hatred, seem to concentrate more on how we can practise Perfect Love.
Fr Spitzer describes love as a movement from autonomy to empathy to self-giving.
Though this unity with the feelings and being of another does not cause a loss of one’s self or self-consciousness, it does cause a break in the radical autonomy one can effect when one focuses on oneself as the centre of one’s personal universe (autonomy). … This acceptance and identification of the feelings and being of the other give rise to concern for the other, which evolves into care for the other as the relationship grows. This care, in its turn, can completely reverse the human tendency toward autonomy (over against the other) and give rise to a self-giving that can become self-sacrificial (agapē).
As far as justice/goodness are concerned, Fr Spitzer says,
The “love of justice and the good” is a natural unifier, for it overcomes the natural barriers and enmity arising out of competition for scarce resources, fear of strangers, natural animosity, survival of the fittest, and suspicion of others’ potential injustice. It overcomes the natural barriers and enmity of irresponsibility (responsibility to myself alone, or the complete abdication of responsibility), by calling individuals to a higher duty to the just society. It can also lead to self-sacrifice (the sacrifice not only of one’s advantage and aggrandisement, but of one’s very self) for the sake of the good of society or for goodness and justice within society.
Drawing these two aspects together – Perfect Love and Perfect Justice/Goodness –
… we may do well to pause for a moment and consider the complementarity between love and the good in human self-consciousness. Three of these complementarities are described in the history of philosophy by the “love-justice dialectic”: (1) Love tends to look first toward care for the individual and through this lens, to move towards care and co-responsibility for the group or even civil society. Conversely, the good has the connotation of looking first towards the common good, that is, the good of civil society, the culture, and the group, and then moving from this to the good of the individual. (2) Love begins with care and empathy, and from this moves toward co-responsibility and duty. Conversely, the good tends to move from co-responsibility and duty to empathy and care. (3) Love proceeds from compassion and mercy, and then moves to justice and the need for law, whereas the good proceeds from justice and respect for the law and then moves to a specific application of the natural law, and then to respect for the individual protected by the law, and then to compassion and mercy under the law. In sum, love and goodness must eventually overlap, but they overlap each other from opposite directions.
It seems to me that much of the imbalance in society right now, is that empathy towards certain individuals and sectors of the community is drowning out discussion of the common good as far as civil society and culture are concerned. As Christians, we need to regain our ability to speak without fear about the common good of society, without sacrificing love. There are arguments to be made about love vs the common good in the areas of immigration policy, the education of children, marriage and family, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, amongst others. It’s not an easy task, especially when our own sinfulness leaves us open to accusations of hypocrisy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And in our personal lives, we need to have a good hard look at whether we are practising what Jesus is asking of us, especially in those relationships where we feel the most tension and would rather engage in a culture of avoidance than a culture of encounter.