I read about a nun who worked for a home health care agency in rural West Virginia. While making her rounds, she ran out of gasoline. As luck would have it, there was an Exxon gas station just down the road. She walked in to buy some gas. The attendant regretfully told her he just lent the only can he had, but he was sure the fellow would be back shortly.
Since the nun was in a hurry, she looked for something to fill with gas. She spotted a bedpan. She filled it with gasoline, and carried it back to her car.
As the nun poured the gas from the bedpan into the tank, two Baptists were watching from the roadside, and one said: "If that car starts, I'm definitely becoming a Catholic.” Moral of the story: it's amazing the many ways we can influence people.
I just came across a new book titled “The Power of Meaning.” It highlights our obsession with happiness. People want to feel a sense of well-being on the one hand, and yet many feel alienated and depressed. Happiness, the author proposes, is not a goal in life because such a goal is too self-centered. Happiness results from living an other-centered life.
The author then describes four ingredients that will create a meaningful life and result in happiness. First, a sense of belonging whether family, friends, colleagues or like-minded pals. A sense of belonging makes us feel that we matter and that we can be our true selves. The second ingredient, purpose. Living with a purpose motivates and energizes us to do something for others. It can be our job, our volunteer service or our pastime. The third ingredient, storytelling. We are all storytellers in that we try to make sense out of our lives and form an identity. The final ingredient, transcendence. We try to live for someone or something greater than ourselves. Here I would argue that there's a subconscious, if not conscious, quest for what is ultimately true, God, in all of us. To paraphrase Augustine in the 4th century: our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O God. The point of the book is simple enough: if you have these four ingredients, you will be happy.
Now what does God's word say to us? Jesus in today’s Gospel asks us to love our enemies. The real challenge is to love the people we live and work with, relatives and neighbors who annoy us (and whom we probably annoy). “To love our enemies” is to create and nurture a friendly, helpful and welcoming atmosphere. Jesus in the Gospels instills within us a vision that sees beyond stereotypes, politics and appearances and recognizes the “spark of the divine” in every one, to paraphrase Scott Peck's “The Road Less Traveled,” no matter how “bad” or “unlovable” they can seem. In the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel, the word for love is agape. That indicates not a romantic or emotional love, but an unconditional love for our fellow human beings, wishing them, not bad luck or misfortune, but good.
You don’t have to like someone to love them. The agape that Jesus asks us to have for our “enemies” means that, no matter how much he/she injures or hurts or upsets us, we will never let bitterness close our hearts to them nor will we seek anything but their good. Agape recognizes the humanity we share with all people who call God “Father” – and that love begins within our own households, workplaces and neighborhoods.
Today's word of God first carries us back in our imaginations to the Book of Leviticus, one of the first five books in the Hebrew Torah or the Christian Pentateuch. The author demands that we be holy because God is holy.
The author then asks: are we compassionate with one another? Are we honest? Are we fair? Why? Because we are created in the image of God and so we ought to reflect godly behavior in our daily lives.
Paul in his letter to the Christian community at Corinth in Greece proclaims that we are a living temple of God. The awesome Spirit of God dwells within us. Worldly wisdom, Paul continues, pales in light of godly Wisdom. Paul concludes that all things are ours because we belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God. Paul challenges us to become living temples of God.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus makes some radical demands upon us: love your enemies; if someone slaps you on one side of the face, offer the other; give to everyone who asks. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Now how can anyone practice some of these ethical teachings of Jesus? How understand them? Some of these teachings don’t seem practical. Who can possibly “give to everyone who asks?” And so are these teachings simply another example of middle eastern hyperbole/exaggeration? A few people, e. g., Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day, have tried to take these teachings literally. But for most people, they’re not very practical. And so the question remains: how understand these ethical teachings?
First, we have to remember that Jesus connects our love of God with our love for one another. The judgment scene of Matthew 25 says this loudly and clearly: when I was hungry, when I was thirsty, etc. We can’t say we love God and yet neglect our needy fellow human beings.
Second, these radical ethical teachings of Jesus have to be linked to the mission of Jesus.
Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God is in our midst. Yes, the kingdom is here but the kingdom is not completely or fully here. You and I are living in-between the historical coming of Jesus centuries ago in Bethlehem and the final coming of Jesus in glory at the end time. And so we live in the tension between.
Jesus indicates the goal or thrust of our ethical behavior, but this goal may not always be achievable. For example, "giving to everyone who asks" is not always possible, yet it does indicate the thrust or direction of our lives: be generous with what we have: our time, talent and treasure.
To the person who strikes you on one side of the face, Jesus says, offer the other as well. But sometimes we have to stand up against wrongs; sometimes we have to fight against evil, e .g., the evil of Nazism. Sometimes we may have to take someone’s life in self-defense. But the teaching of Jesus indicates again the thrust or direction of our lives, that is, we should try as often as possible to be peacemakers, healers, bridge builders, reconcilers.
And so these radical ethical teachings of Jesus create tension between the present and final stages of the kingdom of God.
The genuine disciple of Jesus lives in this tension by seizing the many opportunities to do good today. To quote John Wesley: “do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Amen.