Luke 6: 31-16
One of the hardest things in life is to be kind to those who have offended us. It seems to come naturally to respond with resentment, anger, and judgment to those who treat us poorly. This is true in our personal relationships, in our families, at work or school, and it is also true when we think of how nations get along or often do not get along. In the world as we know it, it is easy to do good to those who do good to us, but terribly hard to love our enemies.
So we may wonder why the Lord gave us such a difficult teaching to follow as we find in today’s gospel lesson. Be merciful even as your Father in heaven is merciful. Love your enemies. Do good to everyone; lend expecting nothing in return. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Christ Himself tells us that this is the difficult path to the blessed life of the Kingdom of God.
I know that we are tempted to say that this message somehow does not apply to us. Maybe it is possible for monastics, such as the great ascetic St. Cyriacus the Anchorite of Palestine whom we commemorate today, or for others who lived long ago or in other parts of the world. We often despair, however, of actually obeying Christ’s command ourselves. We do so because, like everyone else since Adam and Eve, we are fallen people in a fallen world.
No matter what century or country we live in, no matter our age or marital status or occupation, we all struggle against the spiritual diseases that make it so hard to forgive, love, and serve those who have violated our pride by offending us. We have turned away collectively and individually from the truth that we are made for a common life in the image and likeness of God. We have forgotten that it is our very nature as persons to be united with one another in love as are the members of the Holy Trinity.
No, our calling is not simply to have friends or family members. Even terrorists and gangsters have them, for it is easy for people to love those who love them—even if they are so filled with hate against others that they think nothing of killing innocent people who get in their way. But what kind of love is that? It is a love not even worthy of the name because it is really nothing more than self-centered desire, than simply judging others in terms of whether they please us. If so, they will be nice to them. If not, they will find a way to destroy them.
Of course, that is an extreme example; but we have only to look in the mirror to find instances that hit closer to home. If our spouse, child, or best friend needs help, we usually do not even think twice about doing what we can. But if it is someone whom we do not like, who has wronged us, or a stranger whose request is simply inconvenient, we make excuses. And sometimes we treat even our spouses, children, and friends in such poor ways. When we do so, we live according to the lie that whether people please us is what determines whether we relate to them as those who bear the image and likeness of God or as nuisances not worthy of our attention.
And in that moment, we commit idolatry as surely as if we bowed down before a golden calf, for we are simply serving ourselves, worshiping our own will, and disregarding the calling that the Lord has given us all: to participate in the mercy of our Father in heaven. He is kind to the ungrateful and selfish. He loves even those who reject Him, even those who killed His Son and the rest of us who reject Him so often in what we say and do. Still, He bestows countless blessings on us all. And through the Son whom He sent out of love for the world, we are able to become participants in His life, to become His sons and daughters.
How tragic, then, that we so often choose to reject this high calling and instead to live according to the same corrupt principles that continue to bring crime, war, and broken relationships of all kinds to the world. How sad that we so often prefer death to life, pain to joy, and the hollow victory of self-exaltation to the blessedness of growing in communion with one another and with the Lord Himself. And if we as Christians live this way, what hope is there for a world where helping our friends and cursing our enemies is just business as usual?
Jesus Christ is certainly the hope of both the Church and the world. He is our hope because He brought a new way for human beings to relate to others and to God. He died and rose again for those who rejected Him, who nailed Him to a cross and thought that He was demon-possessed. He not only healed His own people the Jews, but showed the same mercy to Gentiles, Samaritans, and even a Roman centurion, a foreign soldier who occupied His homeland. He was at times very frustrated with the disciples for their lack of faith; they largely abandoned Him at His arrest and crucifixion, but Christ still appeared to them after His resurrection and blessed them as the leaders of the Church.
Our Savior is the embodiment of mercy to everyone, for He came to save and transform the entire world, the whole creation, and especially every human being—for we are all created in the divine image and likeness with the glorious calling to share fully in His victory over sin and death, to ascend with Him to the peace and joy of eternal life. Even more amazing is the truth that we are able to participate in Him, to be nourished by His Body and Blood, the medicine of immortality and holiness. And, yes, we really are able to become merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful. By being filled and transformed by His grace, we may become living icons of the divine love and light even in our most difficult relationships.
No, receiving the Eucharist does not automatically restore us to perfect spiritual health. We have to prepare to receive Christ for our salvation by repentance, prayer, and fasting, but we are still never worthy of Him because He is the infinitely Holy God and we are sick and in need of a physician. We are the dying who need to be brought back to life. We probably reject Him in some way every day. And yet He still loves us, receives our prayers for mercy, and even makes us guests at His Heavenly Banquet. In every Divine Liturgy, we enact and participate in the joy of our salvation, the unfathomable mercy of God that extends even to you and me.
The answer to our tendency to be kind only to those who are kind to us and to worship at the altar of our self-centered desires is found in the One who offered Himself for those who were not kind to Him, who treated Him like an enemy to the point of death. Again and again, as we approach Him “With the fear of God and faith and love,” we become what we receive. His selfless mercy will transform us, becoming the deep truth of our lives that we will live out in how we treat friend and foe alike. Of course, we must cooperate by mindfully struggling to go the extra mile for others even when we do not want to, by turning the other cheek when we are insulted, and biting our tongues when we would like to respond in kind to harsh words. We will surely stumble and fall short on this path, but with a prayer for mercy, we must move forward, step by step, in showing others the same compassion that we ask from our Lord. And then we will become more like our Father in heaven, whose mercy extends even to you and me.
Let us never think of the Eucharist as just something that we do every week or even simply as how we as individuals commune with Christ. More fundamentally, the Eucharist is how we are transformed to be the Body of Christ, in communion with the Holy Trinity and the Church in heaven and on earth. It is how we participate personally in our Lord and fulfill our true nature as human beings united in love with all who bear the divine image and likeness, even our enemies. It is an icon of the Heavenly Banquet to which we all—friend and foe alike—are invited.
So despite our spiritual brokenness and imperfect relationships, let us put aside everything that stands in the way of opening ourselves by prayer, repentance, and faithful reception of our Lord’s Body and Blood to the joy and reconciliation that are ours as the sons and daughters of the God. Let us leave this holy temple strengthened in our ability to be kind even to the ungrateful and selfish and to be merciful like our Father in heaven. Let us make all our relationships visible signs of the great salvation that Jesus Christ has brought to the world, and thereby grow closer to Him and to one another.