“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly” (Luke 6: 27-28)
On Wednesday, May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca pulled a gun and shot Pope John Paul II four times in his abdomen during a procession in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, Italy. The injuries were very critical but the Holy Father survived it. The Pope in his hospital bed asked the Church, and in deed everyone, to “pray for my brother … whom I have truly forgiven.” In 1983, after he had fully recovered, Pope John Paul II visited Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who wanted him dead, in prison where he was being held. On that visit, which he actually intended to be very private, he brought the photographer and some cameramen were also allowed in because the Holy Father wanted the image of their meeting to be captured and shown around a world filled with “unforgiving hatreds, with hostile superpowers and smaller implacable fanaticism.” During that visit, Mehmet Agca kissed the Pope’s hands before they sat closely together. After the 21 minutes’ dialogue, the two men shook hands. The Pope gave Agca a small gift ion a white box, a rosary in silver and a mother-of-pearl. Then he walked out leaving Mehmet Agca transfixed and stupefied with a look of shock as he stared at the man he wanted to kill who now comes to him as a friend.
The story of Pope John II’s forgiveness of Mehmet Ali Agca is a modern classical story of forgiveness that demonstrates the message wrapped up in the Readings of today’s Eucharistic celebration. “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon, and you will be pardoned” (Luke 6: 36-37). This central and critical message of Christian life is communicated in the First Reading (1 Samuel 26: 2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23), where God delivers Saul, David’s enemy into David’s hands, but David would not hurt the man who went out with 3000 soldiers in search of him to kill. Yes, David’s reason for not wanting to kill his enemy is because he is an anointed of God. But what was David at the time Saul went out to kill him? Of course, remember David had already been anointed as the would-be-king by Samuel (1 Samuel 16: 1-13). Why did Saul not spare him because of that same fact? Would the fact that David himself was anointed not give him reasons to strike at his enemy? After all, if he had killed Saul, he would have become king of Israel automatically having been so anointed. The action of David transcends the regular practice of “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise” as prescribed by the Torah (Exodus 21: 24).
The teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of today (Luke 6: 27-28), which is the second part of the “Sermon on the Plains”, challenges us to rise beyond the traditional transactional basis of human relationships to the “new-normal” level of relationship with each other, nay with the enemy, founded or grounded on love, which is basically altruistic – “Love your enemies.” The Greek word Jesus uses here is “agapao” or “agapan”, which translates love rooted in the will or rooted in the choices we make towards the enemy. It is a love of active benevolence towards the other. It implies that one will never allow himself/herself to desire anything towards the other except to his/her highest good. To live out this love, Jesus gives us some sets of practical imperatives: “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you and pray for those who treat you badly” (Luke 6: 26-27) No one does any of these sincerely by default. It must come from a willing heart and carried out by choice. This is the kind of heart that Christ is challenging us to develop. The kind of heart that David had towards Saul. This is the example that Jesus Himself gave to us when He prayed for His executioners “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23: 34). The life that Stephen imitated (Acts 7: 54-60) as well as St. Pope John Paul II.
Jesus then outlines the non-resistant/non-violent aspects of this love: “To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too” (Luke 6: 28). This is a demand to overcome our natural human instincts of self-defence and revenge. Here one refuses to be conquered by evil, and learns to conquer evil with good. Perhaps this is the greatest need of our world today, where defence and revenge have defined our international relationships; where power and might have become the basis for greatness. We live in a world that cries for leaders like Mahatma Ghandi, a Martin Luther King Jnr, and a Nelson Mandela, who were able to look at their enemies with love in the eyes and with peace in their hearts, even when they had guns in their own hands.
“Treat others as you would like them to treat you.” (Do to others what you would like them do to you): This whole teaching is anchored on this well-known Golden Rule, which Jesus states in the positive, not simply to distinguish it from the Silver Rule (Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you), but to teach that the Christian conduct consists not so much in refraining from doing bad things but in actively doing good. This is the call of Christ to us today, to love and not count the cost.
Another important feature of the Christian ethic that Jesus enunciates is that of going the extra mile or being different. In the Gospel of John Jesus tells His disciples that though they are in the world they are not to live according to the standards of the world. Each of us is called to be a “sign of contradiction.” We are not called to a life of conformity to the world but to a life of imitation of Christ. This is why we have to do more than “the sinners.” How much better than the others are we? What makes us different from those who do not believe in God?
“Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate”: The paramount consideration or desire of a Christian is to imitate God, who is compassionate. To be compassionate concretely means to stop judging, stop condemning, to forgive and to give in faith and hope. Here, Jesus makes it clear that what we put in is what we shall receive. The Merciful God is also a Just God, Who will reward us as our conduct deserves.
Let me conclude with this beautiful Prayer for Generosity by St. Ignatius:
Lord, teach me to be generous, to serve You as You deserve,
To give and not count the cost,
To fight and not heed the wounds,
To toil and not seek for rest,
To labour and not to look for any reward,
Save that of knowing that I do Your Holy Will. Amen.