This past weekend my homily was about loving our enemies and praying for those who hurt us, taking my direction from this Sunday’s Gospel. Apparently, the topic is one that affects quite a few people, as I got more feed back from this homily than I have from any other one in particular.
I typically don’t write my homilies out, but try to preach from memory. So, I did my best to try and rewrite what I preached about this past Sunday.
In today’s first reading, we hear from the book of Leviticus in which our Lord instructs Moses to relay a message to people of Israel. That message is this: “Be holy as the Lord your God is holy!”
One might can imagine that the Jewish people asked themselves what this meant, as perhaps we all ask ourselves the question, what does it mean to be holy?
When thinking of a holy person, perhaps we imagine someone who is very pious or devout, someone who attends Church everyday, prays their rosary everyday, is always watching the religious channel on television or lighting candles in front of statues of saints.
But holiness is more than just piety and devotion. Sure, it stems from our love for God and our devotion and piety, but it also spills over into our relationship with others. For example, if someone were very pious and devout, but didn’t treat people with kindness or generosity, if they were selfish or mean-spirited, we wouldn’t think them to be holy. Or if a person were kind and generous, but didn’t have a relationship with God at all, we wouldn’t think of them as an example of holiness. Holiness is both our love for God and also how that love for Him gets lived out in our relationships with others.
It is the latter that is often times more difficult. Let’s look at today’s Gospel. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemies, BUT I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Now, if I asked for a show of hands and I asked how many people here have enemies, I suspect that not many hands would go up, after all, we are good Christian people and would like to think that we don’t have “enemies.”
But if I asked the question in a different way, I asked for a show of hands from people who have been hurt by someone, who has been offended or betrayed, who have had their families torn apart by something that someone has said or done, I suspect that their might be a few hands to go up.
Sadly, it is often times the people that we are closest with that can do the most damage to us – parents, siblings, in-laws and friends. Often it is those that we love the most who can become our “enemies” – those that we need to love and pray for because they have hurt us.
This is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. And we as priests are not immune from it.
I remember when I was in seminary, I had to deal with a situation in which someone had done something that made me very angry, in which I had felt betrayed.
What bothered me most is that I was preparing to be a priest, a minister of God’s mercy and forgiveness, and there was so much anger in my heart.
My spiritual director at the time was very patient with me. He allowed me, each week, to vent my anger, to express my hurt and frustration, but then came a point where he had to help me move forward – he had to challenge me to forgive, to let it go.
I remember protesting, again, justifying my anger, saying, “you don’t understand what it is like.” Then he told me a story that changed it all. He did understand what it was like to be hurt, and to harbor pain and anger and resentment in his heart as he prepared for the priesthood.
He told me about his childhood, about how his father was an abusive drunk, about how his mother would take him and his siblings onto the bus each night and ride it all night long so that they wouldn’t be beaten by their drunk father. He told me about the anger that raged in his heart for so many years and then, with tears rolling down his cheeks, he told me about when his father died. He was in seminary, a few years before ordination. He told me that when he went to the funeral, and knelt down to pray before his father’s body, and of how that anger exploded.
He told me that as he knelt there looking at his father in the casket, he got very angry remembering all of the pain and the hurt, and reached in pulling the rosary beads out of his dead father’s hands… saying, “you don’t deserve these”
This dramatic example helps us to see what happens when we allow that anger to linger in our hearts, it has the potential to erupt.
This priest had to deal with this anger and resentment and hurt later on in his life. He went to the cemetery one day to bury those rosary beads at his father’s grave.
My brothers and sisters, we all need to “bury the rosary beads,” so to speak. We need to let go of the anger, of the hurt, of the resentment.
Forgiveness doesn’t change what happened. Forgiveness doesn’t change our hurt. Forgiveness doesn’t make everything better. BUT forgiveness gives God the opportunity to heal us and our brokenness.
If we don’t forgive, we can not be healed, and in fact, we become enslaved to that anger and bitterness which separates us from God and one another.
How many families have been divided or torn apart by people holding grudges? How many children grow up not knowing their grandparents, aunts or uncles because of the lack of forgiveness?
Forgiving others is the first step in allowing Christ to heal that pain, to heal that hurt, to reconcile family and friends.
St. John Vianney asked this question: “which of these two suffers more, the one who promptly forgives others with a good heart out of love for God, or the one who nourishes feelings of hatred toward his neighbor?
Again, this is one of the most difficult parts of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, but it isn’t just a challenging commandment that our Lord has given us, he also gave us the powerful example. At the end of his life, Jesus was mocked and ridiculed by those whom he had loved and served. As the soldiers were hammering nails into his hands and feet, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
You see, being holy isn’t just about being pious or devout, it isn’t just being a kind and generous person – it is about radically following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ! May His name be praised, now and forever, Amen!