(This homily originally appeared in Connect! magazine)
Today’s gospel strikes us on the cheek with the most difficult and challenging words in all of Scripture: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn and offer the other....Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus’ words are so pointed and direct that we often think he must be exaggerating to make his point. He cannot possibly expect us to love those who hate us. He cannot mean that we are to allow others to mistreat us without seeking vengeance.
We might be able to accept that we should forgive the small indignities we suffer in day-to-day life such as the co-worker who takes credit for work we have done or the driver who cuts us off during rush hour. But what about the schoolyard bully who tortured us throughout childhood? What about the Wall Street “fat cats” who swindled away the life-savings of the elderly? What about the drug-dealers and gang members who make us fear for the safety of our children? Does God really mean that we should love them? How can that be possible?
It is clear from Jesus’ teaching and from the example of his life that he meant exactly what he said. Just as we accept forgiveness for our own sins, we are to forgive those who sin against us, no matter what they may do. Not only must we forgive them, we must love and pray for them. It is a lot to expect from frail human beings as we are. But it is not impossible. If God expects it of us - and he does - he will give us the power to accomplish it.
Many people have heard these challenging words of the gospel and, rather than writing them off as an exaggeration, have taken them to heart and tried to live by them. One such person was Immaculee Ilibagiza.
Immaculee was a young college student living in the East African nation of Rwanda with her parents and three brothers. Like all young college women, she had many hopes and dreams for her future.
All that changed in 1994 when civil war broke out in her country. The president of Rwanda, a member of the Hutu tribe, was assassinated. Hutu tribesmen wanted revenge against the other major tribe in Rwanda, the Tutsis, whom they blamed for the murder. Hutu militias handed out machetes, machine guns and grenades to the people urging them to kill every Tutsi they encountered. Over the course of 100 days an estimated 850,000 people were killed.
When the killing began, Immaculee’s father sent her to the home of a friend of his, a Hutu pastor, to hide her until the frenzy ended. Along with five other women, she took refuge in a small bathroom off his bedroom.
For nearly three months, the women huddled in that bathroom. Gripped with fear and not knowing what had become of the rest of her family, all Immaculee could do was pray the rosary. Outside the window, she could hear people screaming and begging for their lives as they were mercilessly butchered. Bands of killers would search the pastor’s home but, miraculously, they never found the bathroom in which she was hiding. Prayer became the only way she could keep her sanity with so much inhumanity around her.
Eventually she learned that her family had been killed. The only one spared was a brother who had been studying in Senegal when the war broke out. Her father was murdered when he ventured out to get food for neighbors who had taken refuge in a nearby stadium. The killers took his body and used it for a road block. Her mother was killed when she ran out of her house to protect a neighbor who had been confronted by the mob. Finally, her two brothers were killed when their hiding place had been discovered.
As we can only imagine, she was filled with grief and rage. She wished all the Hutus would suffer cruel and humiliating deaths as her family did. At the same time, she understood Jesus’ words calling her to love and forgiveness. During her months of hiding, the rosary had given her comfort and strength. How could she keep praying it, especially the words of the Our Father: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” if she continued to harbor hatred in her heart?
This is what she writes in her memoir, Left to Tell:
In God’s eyes, the killers were part of his family, deserving of love and forgiveness. I knew that I couldn't ask God to love me if I were unwilling to love his children. At that moment, I prayed for the killers for their sins to be forgiven. I prayed that God would lead them to recognize the horrible error of their ways before their life on earth ended - before they were called to account for their mortal sins.
Immaculee’s story is powerful and moving. But she is not alone. Many others have discovered the peace that comes from forgiveness even after suffering unspeakable traumas.
Chances are, whatever wrongs others have committed against us are not as heinous as having our family killed in a genocide. If this courageous woman could find it in her heart to forgive those who cruelly tortured and killed her family, we can find it within our hearts to do the same. It is not easy. It requires much prayer. It is not only possible, it is necessary if we are to one day end the cycle of violence and war which has plagued so much of human history.
In the first reading, God tells his people to be holy as he is holy, and then he follows by commanding them to love their neighbor. In the gospel, Jesus teaches us that we must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect and precedes it by commanding us to love our enemy. Love of neighbor and especially of enemy is only possible when we discover that we are loved unconditionally by our Heavenly Father and that our enemy is not only our neighbor but our brother and sister. We want to be loved and forgiven unconditionally and so we must show love and forgiveness unconditionally as well. The love of God makes it possible.