Ars Praedicandi: Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

Jesus is remembered as saying
many outlandish things:
like suggesting that the poor are blessed,
or that God loves sinners,
or that we are actually supposed to love our neighbor
as much as we love ourselves.

But on the preposterous scale
the pinnacle of fantastical Christian teaching
almost verging on the ridiculous
jas to be today’s passage from Luke
that not only instructs us to love neighbors,
but actually to love our enemies.

This is the Mount Everest of Jesus instructions
that few of us feel equipped much less inclined to climb.

One of the hurdles to understanding, much less embracing
this apparently scandalous instruction
is the way many societies, including our own,
have reduced “love” to a feeling or buzz word.
Various advertising blitzes have confirmed
that a love induced state can be achieved
by acquiring the correct goods.
So Johnson & Johnson products
are peddled as “the language of love.”

Dole’s fruit bowls are marketed as a secret love language
and diet coke is the self-declared
universal language of love.
Though the height of absurdity might be
the fast-food commercial from South Africa
with grown adults singing that
the object of their love is their “Bunny Chow.”

To suggest that many contemporary societies
have trivialized the language of “love”
is certainly an understatement.

It is clear from today’s challenging Jesus-speak, however,
that for the Only-begotten love is not a feeling
but a call to action.

The Greek word that Jesus employs is “agapate” from “agape.”
It is an imperative form that commands a commitment
to the highest good of another.
This is precisely not a feeling, which can never be commanded,
but a call to action that can be mandated.

The manifestation that we have heeded this command
is a trinity of responses:
do good, bless, and pray for adversaries, rivals,
opponents and antagonists of every stripe.

We get a partial illustration of the action demanded of such love
in the tale of David from our first reading.

David, who is perceived as a rival to Saul, Israel’s first king,
is being pursued by Saul and his armies
and this slayer of Goliath has not one
but two opportunities to kill the King,
one of which we hear about today.

But David does not step into the quagmire of revenge
and slay the one who wishes him dead.
Rather, he enacts a line from today’s psalm,
which the Bible actually ascribes to his authorship:
he is both just and merciful.

Contemporary science has revealed
just how complicated is the practice of revenge.
The thirst for retribution is timeless,
from Homer to Hamlet to contemporary politics
and our own justice system.

The colloquialism “just desserts”
suggests that revenge is sweet,
but as some psychologists note
much of its sugar is confined to the coating.
The actual execution of revenge carries a bitter cost
of time, motion, physical energy, and even lives.

Behavioral scientists have discovered that
instead of quenching hostilities,
revenge can prolong the unpleasantness of the original offense
and that bringing harm upon an offender
is not enough to satisfy a person’s vengeful spirit.

Thus, instead of delivering justice
revenge often creates a cycle of retaliation,
often fuels aggression,
and usually tastes much more sour than advertised.

So, even from a psychological perspective
revenge is not a healthy move for individuals or society
and the future King David in the first reading
is to be applauded, at least in this passage,
from not giving in to this pervasive human instinct:
notably not shared by any other living species.

Nonetheless, it is a huge leap from the healthy choice
of revenge-abandonment
to loving one’s enemies
and the equally problematic directive
to give to everyone who asks of you what they want,
which, if taken literally, would require
every parent with child in tow
wandering through the supermarket or toy store
to fulfill every toddler’s wish
for unhealthy treats and unaffordable toys.

In Jesus time, it was commonly held that
you should help your friends and harm your enemies. [1]
Jesus, however, rejects this form of ethical mutuality.

As the biblical scholar Gerhard Lohfink summarizes,
if everything depends solely on precisely calculated mutuality –
on “you help me then I will help you” –
the world is not only devoid of grace,
but it lacks any kind of charm or beauty.

Now I have to say that I was not expecting that last move
and cannot remember reading any other biblical scholar
who links this passage about loving our enemies with beauty.
Yet, such an unforeseen turn could foreshadow
unexpected wisdom.

While beauty attracts us,
sometimes prompting us to act generously,
other times irrationally,
it is also frequently dismissed as expendable
in our practical-minded culture.

Beauty’s dismissability is evidenced by so many of our cityscapes
textured in concrete and asphalt,
punctuated by stolid parking garages,
unsightly signs and billboards,
and many blighted neighborhoods
with too little public art, gracious structures
or welcoming landscapes.

On the other hand, true beauty nurtures justice and dignity.
In the words of the anti-apartheid theologian John de Gruchy: [2]

The beautiful serves transformation by supplying images that contradict the inhuman … provid[ing] alternative transforming images to those of oppression. We are … redeemed by such beauty, for art does not simply mirror reality but challenges its destructive and alienating tendencies.

The invitation to love our enemies from an ethic of beauty
does not command or even presume
that we envision our adversaries and rivals
as charming, graceful, or in any way pleasing to the eye.

Rather, the Jesus imperative demands
that our actions towards them are an exercise
of the Christian arts –
that our respect for them be a reflection
of God’s own graciousness
and that our doing good, blessing, and praying
draw back the curtain on the very beauty of God.

In 2015 Paris experienced one of the worst incidents of terrorism
when over 130 people were killed
and more than 350 injured in coordinated attacks.

Days later, a reporter for Le Petit Journal
interviewed 6-year-old Brandon sitting on his father’s knee
outside of a theater, the site of one of the attacks,
as people were laying flowers and lighting candles
To honor the victims.

You might have seen the short clip,
viewed by more than 11 million since it was posted.

The reporter asks the 6-year-old
if he understands why terrorists attacked Paris.
In simple but crisp French he replies
“Yes, because they’re very very very mean,”
“The bad guys aren’t very nice. And we really have to be careful because we have to change homes.”
Il faut changer maison.

His dad reassures him, saying, “No, don’t worry, we don’t have to change homes. France is our home.”
C’est la France notre maison

“But there are bad guys, Daddy!” the boy says.
“Yes, but there are bad guys everywhere,” his father counters.
“They have guns, they can shoot at us because they have guns and are bad,” the boy continues.

“Well, they have guns, but we have flowers,” the father says.
Nous avons des fleurs
The boy turns around to look at some of the flowers behind him.

“But flowers don’t do anything,” the boy argues.
“See all the flowers?” his dad asks.
“They’re to fight against the guns.”
“Are they there to protect?” the boy asks.
C’est pour proteger? ” – and the father says “exactly”

And then the pre-schooler asks: “The candles too?”
“yes,” his dad says. ”
It’s to not forget those who left us yesterday.”

“The flowers and the candles,” the boy concludes,
“they’re there to protect us.”
Oui … oui … oui

Beauty may seem a fragile, even futile weapon
against brutalization and violence,
but it was the terrible beauty of the only-begotten
in his unforgettable embrace of enemies on Golgatha
that defeated death and brought life to the world.

We ritualized with candles and flowers,
beautiful music and gracious spaces,
so that we too can be bearers of that Christ-beauty
which rejects the grotesque, mean spirited, and the violent
and embraces a generosity
that reveals the artistry and grace
of God’s loving spirit.

[1] What follows is from Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth: What he Wanted, Who he was (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2012), 195-199.

[2] John W. de Gruchy, Christianity, Art and Transformation: Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 199-200.

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