Sunday Scripture for February 19, 2023, Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lv 19:1-2, 17-18 Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 8,10, 12-13 1 Cor 3:16-23 Mt 5:38-48
We are challenged to meet the bold command to love our enemies
Honestly, I didn’t mean to hurl a grenade into the congregation.
It was during my homily for Ash Wednesday in 2008 — my first one as a deacon. The 8 a.m. Mass was packed with several hundred people who wanted to get ashes before heading to work. Some of them looked bored, indifferent, sleepy.
That wouldn’t last.
As I was preaching about ways to make Lent meaningful, I asked the people in the pews to do something more than just giving up chocolate. For example, pray more. Pray for someone you don’t know. Maybe pray for someone you don’t even like. “This Lent,” I said, “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” (Mt 5:44)
Then, without realizing it, I pulled the pin and tossed out this explosive question: “When was the last time anyone here prayed for Osama Bin Laden?”
That woke them up. As if on cue, hundreds of people gasped. There was a low murmur from the pews, an uneasy squirm. “What?” “Huh?” “But…really?”
Clearly, I had touched a nerve. A few people mentioned it after Mass. “I don’t know about that, deacon,” one woman said, as she tightened her scarf and headed out into the cold. “You’re asking a lot. I’m not that holy.”
I reassured her. “This wasn’t my idea. It’s in the Gospel!”
She nodded, smiled, and waved me away as she went out the door.
And now this week, at the doorway to Lent, this particular Gospel arrives to challenge and provoke. We once again hear what we don’t want to hear — that bold command is so shocking that if you really think about what it means, and what it implies, it can take your breath away.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus tells his followers in Matthew’s Gospel, “pray for those who persecute you.” That means even the most evil and ruthless.
But that’s not all. This same gospel tells us to turn the other cheek, to hand over your cloak, to walk an extra mile, to “not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.”
No doubt about it — this reading packs a punch. It’s almost custom-made for Christians who really want to rend their hearts for Lent. It makes us remember once again that this coming season isn’t supposed to be easy — that it’s part of what early Christians called The Way, and it remains fundamental to who we are, what we believe, how we live. It calls on us to live like Jesus — to love the unlovable, even those who hate us, scorn us, persecute us.
Encountering this Gospel at this moment, we quickly realize that walking The Way is difficult, with rocks that make us stumble and hills that seem impossible to climb. But we know something else: it is worth the journey. Among other things, this Sunday’s readings foreshadow what’s to come. We survey the landscape, the boulders and sand and craggy hills, and take the measure of what we have to pass through and where we need to go. Here’s an opportunity to ask ourselves, “Okay. How will I do this?”
It begins, we realize, with giving things up and giving things away. We start with our cloak and work our way up to our pride. The Christian journey, whether through Lent or through life, begins by looking outward and upward. It’s enough to make us sink to our knees.
Like I said, it’s not easy. But Jesus gave us the ultimate example, with his last words on the cross. This Gospel reminds us how he is asking us to do the same. Not just during Lent. Every day.
As we step away from Ordinary Time, and into the extraordinary time of these coming 40 days — working our way toward Calvary and beyond that, the empty tomb — we can’t help but feel a sudden jolt. Listen closely to Christ’s words this Sunday. This could be our mission statement.
Love. Pray. Give. Turn your cheek. And then, keep on going. We Christians have been doing that for 2,000 years. Lent can help us remember what our mission means — and what being a follower of Christ truly entails.
Brace yourself. Because — as I found on Ash Wednesday all those years ago — it just might leave you breathless.
Deacon Greg Kandra is an award-winning author and journalist, and creator of the blog, “The Deacons Bench.” He serves in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York.