Today’s gospel puts before us once more a central teaching of Jesus on nonviolence.
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not? You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
As I said recently this teaching of Jesus has been gravely obscured in our Christian consciousness since the early 4th century when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire and the difficult teachings of Jesus were either modified or dropped. Since then militarized Christianity has done more killing on the face of the earth than any other (technically: sociologically identifiable) group. One recent example of this was Donald Trump’s promise to increase US military spending by 10% which prompted the Chinese to raise theirs by 7%. What would these funds mean for the famine stricken regions of Africa?
Yesterday’s Office of Readings by Saint Aelred, Christ the model of brotherly love is a timely reminder that we ought not to excuse ourselves from Jesus’ difficult teachings.
The perfection of brotherly love lies in the love of one’s enemies. We can find no greater inspiration for this than grateful remembrance of the wonderful patience of Christ. He who is more fair than all the sons of men offered his fair face to be spat upon by sinful men; he allowed those eyes that rule the universe to be blindfolded by wicked men; he bared his back to the scourges; he submitted that head which strikes terror in principalities and powers to the sharpness of the thorns; he gave himself up to be mocked and reviled, and at the end endured the cross, the nails, the lance, the gall, the vinegar, remaining always gentle, meek and full of peace.
In short, he was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and like a lamb before the shearers he kept silent, and did not open his mouth.
Who could listen to that wonderful prayer, so full of warmth, of love, of unshakeable serenity – Father, forgive them – and hesitate to embrace his enemies with overflowing love? Father, he says, forgive them. Is any gentleness, any love, lacking in this prayer?
Yet he put into it something more. It was not enough to pray for them: he wanted also to make excuses for them. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. They are great sinners, yes, but they have little judgement; therefore, Father, forgive them. They are nailing me to the cross, but they do not know who it is that they are nailing to the cross: if they had known, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; therefore, Father, forgive them. They think it is a lawbreaker, an impostor claiming to be God, a seducer of the people. I have hidden my face from them, and they do not recognise my glory; therefore, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
But if he wishes to prevent this fire of divine love from growing cold because of injuries received, let him keep the eyes of his soul always fixed on the serene patience of his beloved Lord and Saviour.
℟. He surrendered himself to death, letting himself be taken for a sinner.* He bore the faults of many while praying for sinners.
℣. Jesus said, Father, forgive them: they do not know what they are doing.* He bore the faults of many while praying for sinners.