Saturday in the First Week of Lent: Deuteronomy 26:16-19, Matthew 5:43-48.
Today’s readings spell out our compact with God in a nutshell. He will make us sacred and all He asks in return is that we love unconditionally. We will ponder today how difficult it is to love those who hate us and are mean to us, but let’s consider for a moment the flip side. How easy and generous this covenant is! After all, loving is the best feeling one can possibly have. Not just easy love for someone who’s nice to you, but also that generous love for a stranger when you give them a coffee or a blanket. God’s not trying to lead us down a necessarily onerous path (although the Cross is part of the path) — He has infused this world with His grace and His Spirit and nothing is greater than union with God’s grace and Spirit. They lift us up, give us strength, reveal beauty, and elevate our souls. This feels good. As Jesus tells us, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt 11:29-30).
For those like St. Thomas Aquinas who believe our reason is an essential part of our spiritual being and that scientific pursuits can aid our ability to know God’s wondrous works, the 2010s were a boom decade in happiness research that aligns with this insight about our easy covenant. Several studies showed that people reported increased happiness when engaging in generous behaviors like giving sweets or money to others rather than keeping these things for themselves. This is “light” social science, but the hard sciences back this up. In the 2017 article “A neural link between generosity and happiness,” the authors use functional MRI to show that specific regions in the brain linked to happiness controls are more active in people practicing generosity: “Generous decisions engage the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) in the experimental more than in the control group and differentially modulate the connectivity between TPJ and ventral striatum. Importantly, striatal activity during generous decisions is directly related to changes in happiness.”¹ So science has finally showed a physical manifestation of something God has been urging us to do since we’ve been human! Listening to God’s Word and practicing charity undeniably makes us feel good. So why is it so rare?
We can’t forget that we’re living in a fallen world, the devil’s world. Jesus acknowledges this, for instance, before His Passion and Death in John’s gospel: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31). St. Paul writes several times how Christians, the children of light, must continue what Christ started and dispel the darkness of the world. He describes the action of Satan: “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). And the devil’s primary mode of blinding us to the truth is through our senses, through temptations that beguile us and ensnare us into believing that we must fulfill our desires at all costs. The redemption of the world out of the clutches of the devil won’t be complete until the Judgement Day and Christ’s return. Until then, we struggle with temptations contrary to God’s law. This is our cross to bear, and why Jesus tells us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
The struggle is real. St. Paul writes to the Romans about the inner conflict between knowing what’s right but still doing the wrong thing: “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom 7:14-15). He speaks of being sold into slavery under sin, that is the original sin of Adam and Eve that cursed humanity to be subjects of the prince of the world, Satan.
Yes, the struggle. This is why God and Moses are so forceful in setting the commandments before the Jewish people. God knows that in our fallen state, we need strong guidance, a strong dose of His truth in order to sustain our moral fiber. Moses says, “This day the LORD, your God, commands you to observe these statutes and decrees. Be careful, then, to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.” In just the short passage from Deuteronomy in today’s first reading, we hear “command,” “observe,” “walk,” “hearken,” and “keep.” On the other side of the equation, we hear twice that God has “promised” them in return and twice that this is an “agreement.” If it feels a little bit like a parent repeating himself to his wayward child in order to impress upon the child the need to do the right thing, well, it is exactly that. But the promise is so great. In no uncertain terms, God promises to reverse the curse that He placed on humanity via Adam and Eve: “you will be a people sacred to the LORD.”
This return to a sacred state from our fallen state, as we know, comes through His Son and the great sacrifice to expiate our sins. God’s patient plan is to cultivate His Chosen People to be the receptacle of His divinity (Mary, that is) and the first recipients of His mercy and grace.
But Jesus perfects our understanding of the Ten Commandments when He comes. Today, He teaches, “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” The “hate your enemy” part was not in the Ten Commandments but rose instead as a cultural tradition, which is why Jesus must correct it. He explains that if we want to be a people sacred to the Lord, we must truly be worthy to be called His children; we must act like Him: “that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” It’s a lovely sentence to describe the indiscriminate love of the Father, because sun and rain are life-giving aspects of creation that God has created to nourish us. Jesus ends with, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Tall order! This is the call of sainthood. But then, the reward couldn’t be greater, to reclaim our status as a people sacred to Him.
OK, it’s time to get real with ourselves. Is perfection possible? Even just this one commandment, to love everyone, to pray for your persecutors? Let’s say that we are faithful people, that we cultivate a relationship with God in prayer and receive the sacraments as part of the Church on earth. Let’s say that we even make a point not to have “enemies,” per se. That is, even if people do evil against us, we forgive them and do not harbor hatred for them, making them an enemy. Is that the same as loving them? Can we remind ourselves to literally pray for the person who is being mean to us or making the planet a worse place by their greed and pride? Reason tells me that I would need a heck of a thick skin not to react badly to someone road raging at me or yelling at me in a store for no reason other than they are having a crappy day. Practically speaking, I think I would need tons of patience and tons of practice.
While these practical considerations might be true to an extent, the one thing I’m not relying on here is God’s grace. If we are trying to be loving, wouldn’t it make sense to appeal to the author of love itself? Let’s be honest, we can’t do this on our own — our sense of pride and justice is too great to have someone scream at us unreasonably and meet them with love in return. Or have someone drag us to court unfairly and meet them with love in return. Or have someone want to silence us, arrest us, beat us because we are different than them … and meet them with love in return. Thankfully, God made us more than just physical creatures. We are spiritual creatures! We have something available to us that elevates us from being mere animals and we need to enter into “that mysterious encounter known as prayer” (CCC, 2567). If we can shut off our knee-jerk response for just a moment and enter into that mystical space of prayer, it immediately helps us. Just closing your eyes and reaching out with your soul to ask God for help has a calming effect in my experience.
We have many saints as role models for us. We also have modern role models who have dealt with some of the worst persecution outside of war — I’m speaking of icons from the civil rights movement, specifically Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Facing blind hatred from white supremacists, politicians reluctant to enact change, and a black populace vacillating between violent retribution and nonviolence, King’s words came from his deep Christian spirituality: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” King’s statement moves beyond the internal struggle to acknowledge the spiritual forces at work. If we do not consider that we are caught up in a much bigger world than what we perceive with our senses, we are blind to truths that we are called to understand. King helps us remember what Jesus had to say about His own Passion and Death — that it was about vanquishing Satan and death, not about His feelings or pride. I particularly like another quote from King: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” He knew that beyond the emotional burden of hate, the burden of sin was much too great to carry.
Look at a video recording of what King had to deal with and realize that if he could channel love in the face of the hate he endured, it should be a piece of cake for most of the rest of us.
As we keep our sights on being perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect, Let’s remember that God knows what it’s like to be human. Jesus acknowledges the limitations of our minds and bodies to His favorite apostles this when praying at the Garden of Gethsemane: “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41). This added gift from God is that He showed us His willingness to become completely human and experience the same weaknesses we experience. There’s some experiential empathy for you. He gives us the sacrament of Reconciliation to help us return to Him with a clean soul again and again. And He gives us the richness of His Word to explore over and over in order to help us slowly, painfully, resist hatred and enmity, replacing it with the spiritual ballast of prayer.
¹ Park, S., Kahnt, T., Dogan, A. et al. A neural link between generosity and happiness. Nat Commun 8, 15964 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms15964