breaking the infernal circle

‘Be merciful as your heavnly Father is merciful.’ There are so many variations of this saying that we hear at the beginning of the Gospel today (Lk 6:36-38), but perhaps they all fall together in Jesus. The Book of Deuteronomy asks us to be blameless–tamin; in Leviticus instead it’s qedosim–‘Be holy as I am holy. Matthew’s Gospel uses teleios, usually translated “perfect”––‘Be perfect as I am perfect.’ Of course for the Greek to be perfect means being conformed to the divine ideal, to be like God. And that’s where the Gospel of Luke comes in. What’s God like? What is the divine ideal?

Just before this in Chapter 6 of his Gospel, Luke ties his version of the saying in to the difficult teaching about loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute you. That section ends with Jesus saying, ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.’ That’s what it means to be perfect––it means to be merciful! That is what conforms to the divine ideal! That’s what it means to be like God, who rains on the just and the unjust. ‘Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.’ The rest of the passage spells out what that means practically: don’t judge; don’t condemn; forgive others. We might think our telos, our ultimate goal, our perfection, is union with God, or a stilled mind (or great abs), or saying our mantra for a half an hour without interruption. But Jesus tells us that our telos, our perfection and ultimate goal is to be merciful as God is merciful. That is the proof of our perfection. The fulfillment of the law is mercy.

The Jewish Scriptures still allow praying for the defeat of our enemy, but we Christians are not allowed to do that anymore. (This is one of the reasons we have had such debates over using an integral psalter liturgically.) The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote that Jesus “first died for the victims and then died for the executioners,” and in so doing he revealed not just a new kind of justice, but a new justice, one that “breaks the Infernal circle of hatred and vengeance, and creates from both the victims and the executioners a new human race endowed with a new humanity.” That’s what we are called to do and to be in this violent world. We’re supposed to be the ones who finally break the Infernal circle of hatred and vengeance, and that applies to our petty little squabbles as well as in grand gestures.

Saint Benedict thought this was a pretty important teaching for monks, too. In chapter 13 he instructs that Lauds and Vespers must never pass by without the praying the Lord’s Prayer. Why? Specifically because thorns of contention are likely to spring up. Thus warned by the pledge they make to one another on the very words of this prayer ‘Forgive us as we forgive,’ they may cleanse themselves of this kind of vice.[1] It’s as if we re supposed to remind each other of this every time we gather for prayer! And then there is this is from Chapter 4 of the Rule:

Live by God’s commandments every day . . . harbor neither hatred nor jealousy of anyone, and do nothing out of envy. Do not love quarreling; shun arrogance. Respect the elders and love the young. Pray for your enemies out of love for Christ. If you have a dispute with someone, make peace with them before the sun goes down. And finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy.[2]

And maybe I want to add to that we ought never to lose hope in our own capacity for mercy, just as we ought never to lose hope in our capacity to be godlike, as we move from image to likeness, from our present reality to the divine ideal.

The way Jesus lays it out it seems so simple, even logical! ‘The measure you measure out will be the measure measured out to you. So be merciful. Stop judging and condemning.’ Then why is it so hard? I was reminded again the other day that when we cry out Kyrie eleison we are not so much asking for forgiveness as we are asking for help. Lord, have mercy! During this Lenten journey to Easter joy, make us more like you who are kind and merciful.

cyprian 26 feb 2018

[1] RB 13:12-13.

[2] RB 4:63-74.

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