Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis on Love of Enemies and Spiritual Perfection

"You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thy enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven [....] Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:43-45, 48).

[236] [Our Lord's] commands are couched in the future indicative: "You will love your neighbor...", "You will be perfect...." These wills are stronger than a more straightforward command in the usual imperative because they not only communicate the speaker's wish that something be done, they also prophesy that something in the future will in fact be the case. Hence, not only the desirability that something be so is expressed by Christ but also the possibility that it become a reality.

Now in the first instance, when the Lord is loosely quoting Leviticus (19:18), all seems to make sense. It is not difficult to prophesy that natural man will love his neighbor (that is, those who are like himself and with whom he must get along if he is to exist at all) and hate his enemy. This is the logic of the flesh, of survival, of the precarious community establishing its unique identity over against all other groups, which simply by being other are potential threats. Much of the force of the passage resides in the fact that the Lord goes on [237] to subvert this natural logic by continuing to use its own forms, as if the unheard-of things he is proposing, so naturally repulsive to man, came as naturally to himself as Word of God as loving one's neighbor and hating one's enemy come to natural man.

"You will be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect": the expediency and real possibility of man putting on the mind and habits of God are presented by the Son as if nothing else in the world were more natural, desirable, possible, or necessary. His use of the future indicative as an imperative command manifests not only his wish and his teaching that his followers ought to move in this direction; it contains the promise that, by the power of his word here and now spoken to them, this will in fact become a reality. 'You must be perfect like God, because such is the nature of the human vocation in God's mind, and therefore you will be perfect. The One manifesting your deepest identity to you at this moment is, by doing so, communicating to you the power to undergo such a transformation.'

The image of man in the mind of the Word imposes itself as more real than the condition in which natural man happens to find himself. The very revelation of this image is already a promise of its realization.

"Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you [...] for if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? do not even the publicans this? And if you salute your brethren only, what do you more? do not also the heathens this?" (Mt. 5:44, 46-47).

Whereas human activity had previously been neatly and satisfyingly divided into loving and hating others, the Lord here keeps the first verb but adds another to that, instead of being its opposite, is rather an extension of the first. The Christian cannot allow himself the too easy satisfaction of loving and hating [238] according to personal whims or the superficial identity of his community or race. All the Christian is allowed to do is love, unconditionally. It is crucial, however, that the categorical imperative to love everyone at all times does not come from a blindness that refuses to see the existence of evil in the world. We are not to love others without exception on the grounds that everyone is so good and love-worthy, or especially because we are so good and loving in any spontaneous, natural sense. No: this would be illusory daydreaming of the first order! We are to love without qualification because the Son of the Father has, through the power of his word, made us children of this same Father [....] It is by the power of God in Christ that we are enabled to love without exception, because this is what the Father does, who is incapable of hatred.

Furthermore, the Lord here recognizes the existence of real enemies and persecutors. He passes no judgment, either, as to whether there is any justice in their animosity toward us and their persecution of us. We are hardly to assume automatically that anyone who is our enemy is a personification of evil! But the Christian's business is to love and to perform the work of love without having previously qualified or disqualified others according to criteria foreign to the mind of the Word. [...]

[239] The universal generosity of love to which Jesus is calling his disciples is like the unrestrained brilliance of the sun as it sheds its rays over all of creation. When we love someone, we are like a sun bestowing the benefit of life, or like rain drenching the parched land that it may give fruit. Behind both the Christian's deeds of goodness and the outpouring of light and water there is the same agent at work: God, the Creator and Bestower of life. Our love is the light and the rain of God upon the world, especially on those who need it the most—the bad and the unjust, who are the truly benighted and parched. [...]

The Lord is establishing a continuity and a harmony between the moral attitude in the heart of man and the objective laws that govern the laws of the cosmos. When we choose to love universally without private prejudice, we leave that illusory inner chamber where we create a puny world in keeping with our own mean ideas and begin discovering the real world created by God in his magnanimous wisdom. Learning how to love as God loves not only makes us his children in a purely interior sense; it is the gateway itself to our perception of the cosmos in all its glory and a participation in its mysterious life. Through universal love, we allow the full benefit of the sun and the rain to fall upon ourselves for the first time. [...]

"If you love [only] those who love you...." Can my attitude of soul be worhty of the name "love" if it is nothing more than a response in kind to someone else's [240] attitude of goodwill toward me? At a purely human level, yes: What sense does it make to pour affection into a dark hole? Is not a clinging to unreciprocated love—or, even worse, to the love of what hurts us—the privilege of the mad? Human love encloses itself in a neat system of "energy conservation", where nothing is ever lost because nothing is ever gained. To love in this way is to take a prudent, speculator's view of human relationships, in which success depends on the greatest possible avoidance of risks. [...] The alleged child of God belies his Origin if he loves only those who love him, out of self-interest, instead of acting like his Father, whose goodness falls upon all without expecting a return in kind. [...]

To love only those who love us is its own reward. The account is neatly balanced. We are established in self-satisfaction. We inhabit a purely horizontal realm with a ceiling so low that our existence smothers for lack of oxygen. Our vision, too, is projected only unidimensionally down the tunnel of our immediate concerns. Man is unlike the other primates in that his posture is upright: he can, if he so chooses, gaze upward continually. His field of vision, if free of artificial clutter, enables him to take in both the ground under his feet and the sky above his head. This is why "our Father" is said here to be "in the heavens": by nature he is the one above the choking [241] horizontality of hermetic systems; he is the one whose very nature makes him condescend, makes him bestow life and love where none yet exists. To be "in heaven", to have one's dwelling in the heavens, far from connoting a spiritualistic fleeing from the earth, means rather to reside in the fullness of love and to be always engaged in bestowing the benefits of love on others—to pour out one's being into the void in others as if one were sunlight and rain. [...]

"You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." How can a human being be perfect in the same manner that God in heaven is perfect? There is an insurmountable problem in our Lord's solemn injunction, which concludes this whole section as its summary, as long as we insist on an abstract, essentialist definition of the term "perfect". The being of man, in this sense, can never be perfect in the same way God's is, and the Lord seems to be enjoining the impossible. Persons have been known to wreck their psychic, physical, and spiritual lives trying to apply this command in an erroneous way. If we apply the literal Greek meaning of the word for "perfect" as noted ("goal" or "end"), we will see that what the command intends is, rather, 'Guide your actions and attitudes by the same intention, the same finality, as your heavenly Father's.' Far from implying a head-breaking striving for the unattainable, we should rise from our immersion in the business of self-survival and focus our outlook from the divine point of view.

From this vantage point in heaven, the Father has as the "goal" of his love the totality of the human family, not just individuals within it.


Source: Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, vol. 1 (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1996), 237–241.

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