There are several times throughout Scripture that I disagree with Jesus--today’s Gospel being one of them. Anytime I’ve experienced disappointment, injustice, or suffering, I have eloquently told Christ in exasperation, “this sucks,” or “I don’t like this,” or “my way is better.” I could use the same responses to Christ’s words today: “love your enemies…pray for those who persecute you…be perfect.”
Are any of these things possible?
In a word, no—if attempted alone. But God did not make man and then place impossible expectations on him. As Pope Benedict XVI is often attributed as saying, “you were not made for comfort, but for greatness.” And so, while Christ’s demands may seem unrealistic to every fiber within me, they guide me towards excellence—or, to use Jesus’ word, perfection. This perfection was the status of Adam and Eve prior to the Fall, and in an instance of particular grace, of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Baptism is the first step that allows us to grow in the perfection of the Father. Through it “we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission” (CCC1213) As sons and daughters of God, we are called to become like our Father. Baptism is the first step taken that enables us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. From there, we are called to cooperate with God’s grace in order to be transformed.
It’s easy to think of our enemies as people bearing swords and armor, but my enemies do not have to be people who dislike me or who do not will my good. I can perceive a neighbor with jarring political views, or a family member with a pointed critique, or a gruff co-worker to be an enemy simply because they may injure my pride or annoy me. The complexity of human relationships and our own woundedness almost ensures that we may perceive enemies in any person—within our friends, family, church, community—at some point in our lives. And yet we are called to love those people and pray for them– especially the ones that may be closest to us.
Jesus tells us that loving enemies involves not only doing acts of charity and extending forgiveness, but also praying. Intercessory prayer for our enemies is a form of charity. It means you are thinking about someone who has slighted you and lifting them up to God. It means blessing them in the midst of your hurt or wounded pride and willing their good in spite of it. It means you are engaging with your pain rather than avoiding or ignoring it—a humility which opens your heart to God’s grace and gives God room to work for his glory. It is for this reason that Jesus says to pray for those who persecute you. This relationship between prayer and charity is fundamental to the Christian life and guides us towards the perfection of the Father.
Being a Christian should set you apart from the world. “If you love those who love you…what is unusual about that?” Jesus asks. The human way responds with “love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” That’s my first response, too. But the God who made man also knows what we are capable of and what he intended us for. And that is to be like him and share in his divine life. So, if God is love, we are called to be love. And this is made manifest in loving your enemies, praying for those who persecute you, and striving for Godlike perfection.
As I’ve mentioned, it’s ok if this seems hard or even undesirable. I’m often reminded of the Scripture passage, “While the Spirit is willing, the flesh is often weak.” While Christ’s commands may sound honorable in theory, they are incredibly difficult in the heat of the moment or in the daily grind. But I believe the point Christ is reiterating in this passage is the need for radical charity—one which is given though not deserved. It was this charity that enabled Christ to look into the eyes of those who tortured and crucified him and say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
This—this is what separates the Christian from the rest of the world. And it is not reserved for Christ or Mary or for humanity before the Fall—it is possible for each and every one of us if we but open ourselves to God’s grace. The saints learned this well. I remember reading, for example, in the Diary of Faustina about an unjust instance with a priest who interrupted her confession and told her to come back that evening, only to ignore her and send her home that night. Immediately, Faustina praised God, prayed, and offered up sacrifices for this priest. Without a moment’s hesitation, she loved her enemies, prayed for those who persecuted her, and therefore imitated the perfect charity of the Father.
As we continue to follow Christ, may we ask for the strength to follow in the footsteps of the saints in order to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
Questions for Reflection: Do you find Christ’s words in today’s Gospel difficult? What’s one step you can take today towards loving your enemies?
Kate Fowler is the Blog Editor for the Catholic Apostolate Center. She received her Master's in Leadership for the New Evangelization from the Augustine Institute.
The Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is the familiar passage of the adulterous woman and her accusers. For as long as I can remember, this story has been bittersweet: it involves targeted harassment and shame, but also redemption and conversion. At this point in Lent, I don’t think there is a more needed, or relatable, lesson for us to be reminded of and to work on accepting.
So, we’re five weeks into our Lenten journey. We’ve been skipping meat on Fridays and trying to live without whatever convenience or vice we decided to give up or purge from ourselves. Maybe we’re praying a little more than we normally would or are setting aside a few minutes to read a daily reflection from those little black books left in the back of our churches. But even with all of these intentional and humbling acts and motivations, we often still feel unworthy or like we’re faltering. Because of this, it’s possible to say that we don’t even need the Pharisees to judge us and bring us for judgement before God – we’re doing it enough for ourselves. To overcome this, I want us to reflect on three things: personal attitude, an open heart, and recognizing what’s in front of us.
I think sometimes we’re too hard on ourselves. We allow our own harsh judgements to replace the only one that truly matters: God’s. Our own personal attitude can prevent us from accepting and sharing in the love and grace of God if we constantly feel that we are unworthy or failing. In the Gospel, when the adulterous woman is brought before Jesus, it does not say that she cried or tried to run. In the Gospel account, she lays at the feet of Jesus, lets Him clear her name and, ultimately, lets Him forgive her sins. Here’s a secret I’ve learned that the Gospel has been trying to tell us for a few thousand years now: Man is never worthy on his own, but has been made so by Christ, who offers redemption to all. If man were worthy, Christ would not have needed to redeem us after the Fall. So, we need to stop allowing our own negative perception of our efforts to prevent us from bearing or receiving the fruits of God’s grace and forgiveness.
Why was Jesus’ reaction effective with the woman? Christ did not condone her sin, but met the woman in her sinful situation with love and mercy. Surely, such a transformation is not possible without a profound encounter with God’s mercy, an openness to change, and conversion of heart. The adulterous woman of this week’s Gospel is told by Jesus to “Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (John 8:11). As a result of her encounter with Jesus, her heart was changed, and she spent the rest of her life trying to grow closer to Him. We are called to do the same – during the Lenten season or any other time. If we are open to the love of God, it will fill us and strengthen us in our actions.
With a faithful attitude and a heart that is open to change, all that is left is for us to encounter God. In order to do this, we must recognize what is in front of us. In the challenges, relationships, beauty of nature, art, and moments of prayer, God is entirely present and inviting us to share in it with Him. What a beautiful gift, and how accessible and truly joyful this is for us!
I want to suggest that each of us take a few moments each day this week to reflect on how we’ve gone out of ourselves to be with or grow closer to God. Instead of grumbling about how much we miss Netflix or those amazing chocolate caramels, be proud of yourself for being so committed to your solidarity with Christ and His own suffering. Or, if you tripped up, instead of getting frustrated with yourself, reflect on the three Stations of the Cross in which Jesus falls. Absolute perfection is never what God expects or even desires – He’s just pleased to recognize a desire in us to do better.
For more resources to accompany you along your Lenten journey, please click here.
Question for Reflection: How can you grow closer to God in the final days of the Lenten season?
Edmund O’Brien is a sophomore English major at The Catholic University of America, currently interning at the Catholic Apostolate Center. He is from Melville, New York.