On the 13th day of May 1981 something remarkably historic happened at St. Peter’s square Rome. There was the usual large crowd made up of pilgrims and visitors to Rome coming to see and cheer the Pope as he made his way on a motorcade for the week’s general audience. Everything was fine and normal until six deadly bullets were consecutively fired at the Pope’s conveyor! Four of the bullets pummelled the Roman Pontiff, Pope John Paul II, at a close range, in the epoch-making assassination attempt. The would-be assassin, the Turkish Mehmet Ali Agca, had migrated to Rome (after killing a journalist in Turkey) for the professional mandate of assassinating the Pope. The Roman prelate slumped from the effects of the bullets that sent mortal darts into his stomach and two arms.
The whole world stood still as the Polish Pope underwent emergency surgery at Gemelli hospital, while Ali Agca, who was duly arrested was sent to Rebibbia prison in Rome. Two years after the incidence, precisely on the 27th of December 1983, Pope John Paul II visited Ali Agca in prison where they had a 21 minute conversation, the content of which the Pope said would remain between him and his brother Ali Agca. Summarily, the Pope went to see the assassin not to remonstrate with him for attempting to kill him but to advance the menu of radical forgiveness served with the dish of radical love. This rare gesture of Pope John Paul II of letting go also orchestrated the shortening of the life imprisonment of Ali Agca in Rome as he was released in June 2000 to the Turkish government and after nine years in a Turkish prison he became a free man on the 18th of January 2010.
Today, our Lord Jesus Christ presents us with the some radical instructions that seem to run contrary with what his hearers had already been taught from the Law of Moses. The basis of our Lord’s instruction was NON-RETALIATION of evil and radical love and forgiveness for those considered to be one’s enemies. The concept of ENEMY among the Jews of the biblical times generally needs to be understood if we have to understand the expediency of this section of the Sermon on the Mount. From the biblical account of the people of Israel, we notice this cultural, religious and tribal divide between them and other people like the Egyptians, Amorites, Amalekites, Moabites, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Canaanites and so on. A typical New Testament example was the encounter between Jesus Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26) as well as story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Hence in this context the people saw those who were unlike them in any form as being on the other side of the divide, hence generically conceived as enemies. It is thus little wonder that the instruction to love in the first reading (Lev.19:1-2; 17-18) covers only one’s neighbours (fellow tribesman or woman).
Enemy in the above context as well as in our day and age stands for so many things apart from being someone who had offended you. An enemy could be someone whose ideas run contrary to yours, someone who does not belong to your faith tradition or creed, someone who does not share the same class and colour with you, someone you are competing with, someone who speaks a language that is not similar to yours; in fact, we make as many enemies as practicable much as we identify differences between us and others.
The message of today is simply a clarion call for radical love and forgiveness for the “wrong people” (enemies) but for the right reason (God). Like in the case of Pope John Paul II and Mehmet Ali Agca, we are enjoined to radically return love for hatred, and forgiveness for injury. In his last book in 2005 (Memory and Identity) Pope John Paul II while recounting the first assassination attempt on him stated that forgiveness is a heroic act. And according to Lewis Smedes, its effect begins in the heart of the person effecting the forgiveness by bringing about inner healing and transformation. One who fails to forgive is fundamentally sick within.
From the point of view of our Lord Jesus Christ in the gospel we heard today, it takes radical love for us to forgive those who have wronged us and persecuted us. Put in another way, it takes a deeper love and understanding of God who is love (1 John 4:8) to let go and let Him. Love is not passive (it is not something we say); it is rather an active reality (something we do). For love to be real, it must be sacrificial in the manner of our Lord Jesus who made it clear that there is no greater love than that which makes someone to die for others (John 15:13).
You may have been living your life with a mind made up not to forgive someone who had wronged you. You may have being withholding love from someone who is desirous of it for a long time now, you may have been operating with the principle of “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth”, you have a message today. If you fail to forgive you will remain spiritually and emotionally sick and unforgiven. If you withhold love for others you will never get it from anyone; in few words YOU CANNOT RECEIVE WHAT YOU CANNOT GIVE AND YOU RECEIVE ONLY WHAT YOU CAN GIVE.
During the trying days of racial discrimination in America, Martin Luther King Jnr emerged with noble reactions which resonate with the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ on non-retaliation (non-violence in his words). Among other things Martin Luther King Jnr. spoke thus:
To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you…Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you….
There is every truth in the Pauline statement that love conquers all things and endures all things (1Cor. 13:7). What answer do you have today for that person that had wronged you so passionately, what would be your reply to those who are persecuting you, what return are you prepared to give for that hatred or injury, what will be your reaction after receiving a slap on one cheek? Your answer will determine where you stand with God and His message for you this week. Make the right decision …LOVE AND LIVE, LET GO AND LET GOD.
Have a beautiful Sunday and a splendid week ahead!