Although St. Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” and St. Luke’s “Sermon on the Level Stretch” closely parallel one another, St. Matthew’s account stretches to three chapters while St. Luke’s presentation is limited to one chapter. Both evangelists however present equal verses regarding Christ’s thoughts on love of enemies. St. Matthew’s recollections of this pivotal Christian instruction will be proclaimed at Mass this coming Sunday. After St. Matthew presents to his satisfaction the admonitions of Christ regarding love of enemies, he concludes the instruction with the challenging words, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” St. Luke for his part concludes his parallel instruction on love of enemies by insisting, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” So in the mind of St. Luke, perfection consists in mercy. Pope Francis in the first years of his pontificate similarly highlighted mercy as the fundamental perfection through which God reveals himself and to which all believers are called. “Mercy is the face of God,” his first encyclical insisted.
St. Matthew’s rendering of Christ’s instructive words is certainly replete with legendary examples of mercy and compassion toward enemies. Turning the other cheek, offering the cloak as well as the tunic, and going the extra mile have become proverbial expressions of kindness, forgiveness and sensitivity. A slap in the face instinctively calls for a return punch toward someone who would act so unfriendly. Someone who would leave a benefactor naked in public without outer or inner garment deserves to be put in his or her place. Foreign troops who force a citizen into service hauling enemy munitions merit no respect. These are perfectly understandable responses of human nature to nasty events that would rob a person of basic dignity. No one wants to be slapped, stripped, or coerced into servitude. Resistance is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, defiance might even be praiseworthy. But the Christian is called to respond otherwise.
Certainly Jesus offers a more profound lesson in his instruction on love of enemies than merely bidding his followers to avoid unpleasantness at all costs. Jesus is not just instructing his followers to avoid a scene by turning the other cheek or by obliging foreign mercenaries. Jesus is advising his disciples that no human situation, no matter how irritating or embarrassing, can ever rob his listeners of their true, innate human dignity. Authentic dignity does not evolve from one’s reputation before one’s fellow men and women. “What will the neighbors think?” should not dominate one’s concern about true dignity. True dignity comes not from the respect one holds in the community or from the reputation one has garnered over the years. True dignity comes uniquely from one’s standing before God and no human nastiness can ever rob an individual of that Divinely bestowed dignity.
The Christian, convinced of his or her own dignity in the sight of God, must then recognize that all other men and women are possessed of equal dignity before God. “For he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” While it is certainly true that many a sad individual has greatly compromised his innate dignity received from the hand of God, nonetheless every believer must strive to restore the other person’s diminished self-worth. Hatred, revenge and ridicule have no place for the Christian even in the foulest of circumstances. Mercy and compassion must prevail. As the reading from Leviticus at Mass this Sunday instructs, “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Just as you have God-given dignity which you do not wish to be compromised, so your neighbor, however morally disadvantaged, possesses an equal dignity before God which you, as a compassionate disciple of Christ, must take every step to insure or to restore.
Ancient mankind knew a code of revenge. “If you knock out my teeth, I’m going to knock out your teeth and break your arm and cripple your leg.” Vengeance was the law of the land. Anyone harming Cain would be seven times avenged. Moses vastly improved on this savagery with his code of retaliation: “An eye for eye; a tooth for tooth.” Moses leveled the playing field. He kept things even: tit for tat. Jesus once again tilted the social arena but this time in favor of mercy: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Mercy is indeed the face of God and the keenest sign of God’s presence in the believer.