The 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 103:1-4, 8, 10, 12-13
Second Reading: 1st Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 3:16-23
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 5:38-48
Considering the opinion that the Jewish people in the New Testament-era had of tax collectors, it is unimaginable that Jesus could have used a more provocative image to make his point about loving our enemies.
When He said, “For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?” he was throwing down the gauntlet not only to his listeners, but to the tradition that dated all the way back to Moses and this weekend’s first reading from Leviticus.
Tax collectors, not surprisingly, were pretty low on the social ladder – a position that they were willing to occupy due to the very lucrative nature of their profession. Their status as the dregs of society was well earned: they worked for the hated Roman Empire, they gouged the taxpayer in order to boost their commissions, and they became wealthy off the hard work of their oppressed countrymen.
When Moses said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” he could hardly have intended for this to include a neighbor who was a traitor to his own people. If he had, then those who studied the Law of Moses, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, would have lauded Jesus for dining with such people, and Jesus would never have had to mention, “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
By using the tax collector both as the foil in His argument as well as the beneficiary of His personal attention, Jesus repositions love as an action rather than an emotion.
Certainly Jesus is not telling His followers that they should feel a certain way about those who hate them or those whom they hate – He is telling them that they must act a certain way towards them. We can’t choose to control our feelings, which are beyond the realm of reason and will, but we can choose to control our actions. A doctor in an emergency room is called upon to save the lives of all under her care – even those whose injuries she might see as ‘just deserts’ for their evil or criminal actions.
As the lines that divide the political, social, and cultural opponents in society become thicker, it is ever more essential for us to be called back to these words of Jesus. As we move from a society where people agree about ends but disagree about means to a society where even the ends are up for grabs, the Gospel message of love of one’s enemy might turn out to be the only way to avert even more violent civil unrest.
Sadly, as a common vision of society recedes into the past, the relevance of the Gospel’s message is in danger of losing whatever hold it had on the hearts and minds of those who struggle over the means of achieving that once-common vision. Those who take their faith in Jesus seriously might understandably tire of the acrimony, and want to walk (or run) away from the culture war, take shelter, and wait for the Parousia or ‘Second Coming.’
Jesus would remind us that if we don’t stand with Him, then we are standing against Him, and that we are called to be in the world while remaining separate from it. He calls us to act as He would act, to love our enemy, to turn the other cheek. For a follower of Jesus to do anything else is to admit that His teachings don’t work in the real world, and that we should leave behind His impractical Gospel of love and its goal of being perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect – an admission that, sadly, would have even worse ramifications than handing over all of our wealth to an evil and despised tax collector.