It's easy to be kind and loving towards those whom we like, to our family and friends, to those who are good to us. All this comes naturally. But Jesus expects much more of us, his followers.
In today's Gospel he tells us to love our enemies, to be good to those who harm us, to turn the other cheek when they strike us. Is Jesus being starry-eyed and unrealistic? Does his approach work? Let's first recognise that Jesus doesn't expect us to like everyone. There will be some people who get on our nerves, and we may have enemies who are determined to harm us.
So how does Jesus expect us to react to aggression? Our natural instinct is to hit back. Rightly, we think the aggressor must be stopped, otherwise he will think he can get away with harming us and other people. But experience tells us that retaliation tends to escalate. Each of us strikes back with a harder physical or verbal blow. The innocent victim is reduced to the tactics of the guilty aggressor. In the heat of anger we may well say or do things which we will later regret.
Retaliation doesn't work. Bitter, vengeful thoughts and actions destroy our peace of mind. Deep down we all long for the peace, which can only be achieved through reconciliation.
So let's see if Christ's approach does work. He sets out to defuse a hostile situation. He goes much further than the traditional negative formulation of the Golden Rule, which urges us not to do to others what we wouldn't want to be done to us. Certainly we must follow that rule. But Jesus expects us to have a positive approach to those who harm us. We must show them love by wishing them well, not evil, by doing them good instead of harm.
Surprisingly, such a positive, generous approach can defuse a tense situation and can sometimes turn an enemy into a friend. This way the innocent victim is not reduced to the violent behaviour of his opponent. Christ's approach is positive and constructive. He's not starry-eyed.
Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus tells us that we do have the duty of stopping people from harming others. That not only causes pain to their victims, but also brings out the worst in those who do the damage. It's for everyone's good that we should help the aggressor to cease from being disruptive. Love, which wants to bring out the best in our enemies, should move us to correct them.
God's merciful response to sinners, not other people's way of reacting to their enemies, must provide the norm for our behaviour. Jesus tells us God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. We must be compassionate as our heavenly Father is compassionate. His love, even for the sinner, is steadfast and unshakeable. Instead of being brittle, it has the resilience to love the sinner and forgive him. God gives the sinner the mercy he needs, rather than the punishment he deserves.
That's the kind of love Jesus expects of us. And he gives us the perfect example of what that means. On the cross he asked his heavenly Father to forgive the very people who were responsible for his execution. Jesus certainly practised what he taught us in the Beatitude: 'Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.' We will be God's true children precisely through sharing the work of the Son of God --Christ the Peacemaker.
We are about to begin our Lenten preparations for the celebration of the death and resurrection of our saviour. As we seek God's mercy by confessing our sins, we should remember the petition of the Lord's Prayer, 'Forgive us our trespasses as -- insofar as -- we forgive those who trespass against us.' We have no right to seek God's mercy if we are not prepared to forgive those who harm us. Showing mercy is the greatest expression of love, the best way of doing good to those who harm us.
We could have no better Lenten resolution than to forgive when we've been hurt and apologise when we have caused pain. Let us all resolve to be what Paul calls 'Ministers of reconciliation'.