Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Way of Forgiveness and Love

Blessed Mother Teresa walked into a bakery one hot afternoon in Calcutta. At her side was a young girl who had not eaten for days. Anxious to get something into her stomach, Mother Teresa asked the baker if he had some left over bread for the girl to eat. With a look of disgust, the baker leaned back and with all the force he could muster, spit in Mother Teresa’s face. Wiping her face, she looked at the baker and said, “Thank you for the gift for me. Now, is there something that you could give this child?” Amazed by her reaction, he reached behind the counter and gave the girl a loaf of bread.

Let us consider all the ways Blessed Mother Teresa could have acted when the baker spit in her face. She could have scolded him for his cruelty and lectured him on how to treat others, especially elderly women and young children. No one would have criticized her for doing so. Considering  her popularity among the people of Calcutta, she could have organized a protest and boycott of the bakery which would have put it out of business. Again, she would have been totally within her rights to do so.

However, she had a greater purpose in mind. Not only was she anxious to find food for the girl, she was concerned for the soul of this baker. Even though he expressed hatred and contempt toward her, she still loved him. She desired not only to feed the young girl but to heal the baker. She wanted him to experience, as she had, the joy of giving to the poor. Rather than seek revenge for the humiliation she suffered, she returned kindness and it made all the difference.

As she did throughout her whole life, Blessed Mother Teresa was seeking to follow the example of Jesus who teaches us: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.”

We do not know what became of the baker. I would like to think that Blessed Mother Teresa’s example of love helped to soften his heart and make him more generous to the needy.

Violence plagues our society. It takes place on a large scale through wars and organized crime. Sadly, it also plays itself out on schoolyards, office buildings and parking lots all throughout our country. At times we can feel utterly helpless, unable to do anything about it. We feel compassion for the victims and sometimes even fear that we could be targeted. However, we are not sure if we can do anything to make a difference.

If history teaches us anything it is that violence only leads to more violence. When we react to the injustice of the powerful with force of arms, it only leads to more injustice. When we seek revenge, it only leads to more bloodshed. Unfortunately, it is the poorest among us and often the most innocent who bear the brunt of the brutality.

Thanks be to God, there is a better way. It is the way that Jesus showed us, the way of love.

Jesus lived in a time when the Roman Empire was occupying the Holy Land. It was not uncommon to be slapped by a soldier, to be made to carry heavy loads for them or to have soldiers break into their homes and take their goods. Often these soldiers wanted Jews to react violently so that they would have a pretext to beat them, imprison them or even kill them. What Jesus asked his followers to do was not to retaliate. Not only would this keep the soldiers from having a pretext to inflict further harm on them, it would also surprise them, make them wonder how someone could forgo vengeance and, hopefully, make them reconsider the way they treated others.

The same is true for us today. Thankfully, we do not suffer the indignities that the people of Jesus’ day did. However, we are often insulted, offended or even cheated by others. Can we take a step back, forget our pride for a minute, and consider what made them act as they did? It could be that they are suffering in ways we cannot see or understand. It could be that they are just plain ignorant. Whatever the case may be, could we find a way of addressing them not to hurt them but to help them see why what they said or did was hurtful and to invite them to change?
At the very least, could we find it within ourselves to pray for them? As Blessed Mother Teresa sought to do, we should be concerned not only with righting wrongs but with righting hearts.

The way of love works if only we have the humility and courage to try it. Every human person has a heart that was made for love and not for hatred. When we see love in action we are instinctively drawn to it. If a person’s heart is calloused from many acts of violence and abuse, it may take that much more love to begin to chip away at it. But love never fails. Eventually it heals, corrects and soothes any human heart that experiences it.

In a world as jaded as the one we live in, these words of Jesus could sound unrealistic and impossible. In fact, without God’s grace it is impossible to love our enemies and show compassion to those who persecute us. But in a world in which violence and vengeance are wreaking havoc, it is the only way forward. It is the only way that we can put an end to the brutality all around us. It is up to us, as followers of Jesus, to make it happen.

The Dalai Lama who himself has witnessed injustices against his native land of Tibet wrote: “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kind.” The vengeance, the retaliation, the hatred has to stop. However, it can only stop if we decide it will and if we choose a better way. Jesus offers that better way to us and gives us the power to live it. We need only turn our cheek to Him and ask him to lead us.

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