“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies,
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father…”
Mathew 5: 43-45
These words from today’s Gospel are among the most challenging of Jesus’ sayings, because it is so easy to confine our love to those we know and like. It is difficult to love those who hate us, who persecute us, or who even just rub us the wrong way.
But that was what Jesus did, even forgiving those who nailed Him to the cross.
Today the churches celebrate the early apostolic father Polycarp who was killed for his faith. There is much that Polycarp can teach us, not only in his rejection of Gnosticism which would propose an otherworldly God and Marcionism which rejected the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament). He also went to Rome and had an amicable disagreement with the Bishop of Rome over the date of Easter; though he did not convince the Bishop of Rome, the Eastern Church was enabled to continue its practices and Polycarp celebrated a Mass in Rome.
But the account of his martyrdom, written shortly after his death, presents his death as a “martyrdom conformable to the Gospel,” suggesting parallels between the death of Jesus and that of Polycarp.
But what struck me, in light of today’s Gospel, is that, when the government forces found Polycarp on a farm, he not only refused to escape but invited those who would kill him to a meal while he prayed:
His pursuers … went forth at supper-time…, with their usual weapons, as if going out against a robber. And arriving about evening, they found him lying down in the upper room of a certain little house, from which he might have escaped into another place. So when he heard that they had come, he went down and spoke with them…. Immediately… he ordered that something to eat and drink should be set before them, as much indeed as they cared for, while he asked them to allow him an hour to pray without disturbance. And when they let him, he stood and prayed, being full of the grace of God, so that he could not cease for two full hours…
Martyrdom of Polycarp, chapter 7
He invited them to eat and amazed them so much that they almost decided to let him go.
Would that we would find ways to prepare a meal for our enemies and that nations would also do the same.
I am reminded of a campaign of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the 1950s when a famine was ravaging communist China. They had members send in bags of grain to the White House with the simple, biblical message, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.”
The US did not send grain to China but when the cabinet was considering bombing China in reaction to attacks on the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, President Eisenhower asked one cabinet member how many bags of grain had arrived. That probably prevented an attack on China which could have had devastating results.
And so, today, let us pray that, like Jesus and Polycarp, we can love our enemies.