Reflection for February 20, 2022
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42
In today’s Gospel passage from Luke, Jesus says: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you . . . [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Luke’s passage harks back to Matthew’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. . . . Be perfect . . . as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 6: 43-48)
Personally, these passages are very important to me. They played a big role in my conversion. I was impressed particularly by the words that say God is perfect and merciful both to the evil and to the good, both to the righteous and the unrighteous. These words spoke to a struggle I had and still have to answer a question: What should be a real Christian relationship to people whom the world or some parts of it declare to be bad and beyond the pale and unredeemable. These condemnations are made all the time. They are famous on Twitter, not that I know much about it. But they’re made daily by politicians, right wing people and left wing people, activists, and pundits on all sides.
The problem was acute for me because of my work. I frequently came across the very bad. Persons who had done unspeakable, terrible things. Persons whose acts had resulted in pain, terror, and death to others. I tell you, it is a humbling thing to look at someone’s revealed soul. For some of them, I could say: if I had been in that man’s position, I could have done the same thing. For others, one could see the deep, deep light of sorrow and remorse. I would say: We always see the person’s sin, and we shouldn’t ignore it; but we never see the repentance unless we look for it.
We live in a world where we are angry at each other, where friends break off relationships because of differing political opinions, where divisions are everywhere, where hatred and self-righteousness trumpet their claims.
But the passages from Luke and Matthew tell us to do the opposite. Both tell us to be like God – to be merciful as he is, to be perfect as he is. But even more they tell us that, no matter what we think and hope, God loves everyone, the wicked and the good. As Jesus says so nicely in the passage from the Sermon on the Mount, God makes the sun shine and the rain fall on everyone. That is, everyone lives in God’s creation. And we should always be wary of judging others. (Matt. 7:1-5) Hold back: Could you have done what this person did? Have you seen the sorrow and remorse? Have you seen the struggles of others? Do you really understand what this person is talking about?
I am not saying that evil should be ignored. I am saying that we have to look at the people we condemn as evil-doers with Kingdom eyes and not the eyes of the newspapers or commentators. Why? Jesus tells us to love our enemies.
Let’s focus on some really bad people, Biblically bad. These are the Assyrians. They were a byword for viciousness and cruelty. They are the people who conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and killed and deported the tribes that we know as the Ten Lost Tribes. They are the people whose army came up to Jerusalem to lay siege and who mocked and terrorized the Hebrews.
I am grateful because I recently stumbled on an article about a Book of the Bible in which these horrific Assyrians feature.* This is the Book of Jonah. We all know that great book – how Jonah ran away in protest because God told him to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrians, and preach repentance. We know how God wrapped him up in the belly of a fish for three days, how even the fish puked him up, how he did what God told him to do in the first place: travel to Nineveh and preach. Then, when the Assyrians of Nineveh repented, Jonah is angry because God didn’t do what Jonah thought he should have done. God didn’t blast the people of Nineveh to ashes while they screamed and writhed. Jonah says to God: “See, I knew you would be nice and that’s why I ran away in the first place!”
Jonah then went outside Nineveh and sat down, maybe to observe, maybe to sulk. A vine grew over his shelter and warded off the sun. In the morning when the sun was heating up, the vine withered. The cranky Jonah is even more angry, probably cursing and stomping. And God says: “You feel this angry about a vine that you didn’t even create. And you think I’m not supposed to have feelings for Nineveh and its 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals there?”
Jonah is us. Nineveh is the people we scorn and condemn. God doesn’t care so long as repentance occurs. We Jonahs understand God’s mercy towards us, but not his mercy to the other guy. Jesus wants us, I believe, to leave this state of mind behind. God’s last words to Jonah are pulling him towards vocation just as Jesus’ words in the Gospel today pull us towards the same vocation. We cannot, of course, ignore evil. But we can be discerning about what often we call evil and about the people who commit real evil. And certainly according to Jesus’ words we have to realize our equality with the sinner. And we have to love them and pray for them. Not dismiss their persons or their appearance. They are different persons and have a different appearance in God’s eyes.
*Claire Mathews McGinnis, “A Vocation for Whom? Jonah, God, and Nineveh,” The Bible Today, January/February 2022