I want to emphasize before I begin my story that I do not read the mass readings before I go to mass.
Mind you, this is probably a mistake. After all, there is a high likelihood that all four of my children will want to be held by me during the totality of mass and thus I will be juggling children when I should be paying attention to scripture. Nevertheless, I would like to emphasize: I do not read ahead. I like being pleasantly surprised (or, sometimes, not so pleasantly surprised) by scripture.
And so, last weekend before mass, I half-teased someone just before mass that she ought to pray for someone who wronged her.
She laughed. “You can pray! Not me.”
“You know, Jesus told us to pray for our enemies,” I said, winking at her.
And then we both went to mass…. and because God really has a sense of humor, this was the gospel reading for last Sunday:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. 40If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. 41Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. 42Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, 45that 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? 48So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
And that, my dear friends, is how I made an absolute ass of myself.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this gospel reading a lot in the last couple of days, because it’s such a hard gospel in every respect.
Pray for our enemies?
Is that even possible?
Think about the person who you are most angry about. The person who has wronged you the most. The person who makes your blood boil.
And God wants you to love… that person?
It must be a mistake. It has to be a mistake!
And so, as I’ve been putting this scripture to prayer (because the scripture that disturbs us the most is also probably the scripture we need to pray about the most) and this artwork came to my mind:
It is a painting that comes from James Tissot’s masterwork, in which he illustrated the entire gospel. This painting holds the perspective of Jesus as He looks down from the cross. What does He see?
Well, there’s Mary Magdalene at His feet (her usual place) praying for Him. She sees His Mother (in gray and white) along with His disciple John (in white and green) and several holy women who have accompanied Mary. And so, there are some friendly faces that He sees.
But there are a whole lot of enemies that surround Him. In fact, nearly everybody else is an enemy. And so, in His last moments, aside from a couple of friendly faces, what He sees His enemies who are laughing at Him and jeering at Him and triumphing in his pain as He dies slowly and painfully on the cross.
Of course, seeing the Crucifixion in this new perspective horrifies me at a whole different level. Why? Because this painting invites me to observe the crucifixion, not as a bystander, as many other paintings of the Crucifixion do, but by inviting me to share in the scene as Our Lord.
And honestly? Were I in the place of Jesus, I would not handle this scene very well. I would rage at the people who lied about me and instigated the crowd to cry for my crucifixion and now stay boldly at my feet and hurl insults at me. I would hate them so much and wish them all to go to hell… literally.
And how does Christ respond to this blatant hostility and cruelty?
34[Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”] They divided his garments by casting lots.
He forgives them.
Not only does He forgive them, but He prays for those that persecute Him by asking the Father to forgive them as well.
All the things that He spoke about previously, He follows them. Even the part about giving them a tunic… after all, He forgives them as they are casting lots for His clothes!
And, instead of wishing for them to go to hell… literally… He goes and saves the righteous souls in hell and invites everyone — yes, even His enemies! — to follow Him.
All of this makes me pause and rethink things. A lot.
Love thy enemy.
Nor is this some sort of command that is given to us by Jesus in a haphazard fashion for us to follow whenever we feel like it. No! Not only does Jesus direct us to love our enemies, but He shows us how this looks like. After all, He forgave His enemies and prayed for them. And now He invites us to come follow Him and do the same.
Even when it’s hard.
May we ask for the strength to follow Christ more perfectly.