Heaven in the here-and-now

| Father Paul Jarvis | February 21, 2019 | 0 Comments
Mercy of Jesus


Before Jesus’ ministry, the law prescribed an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth when seeking revenge. And so David would be justified in dispatching King Saul — yet he extends mercy.

This represents a moral evolution prior to the Messiah: from ancient tribal demand for revenge against the entire community around one’s enemy, to just exacting revenge on a perpetrator, to showing mercy to one’s enemy. That is, not seeking retribution.

Jesus takes this evolution of morality one gigantic step further, from showing mercy to actually loving one’s enemy. Two thousand years ago, this seemed preposterous. But doesn’t it seem just as preposterous today?

Imagine this scene from 40 years ago, with two study-buddies cramming for a Scriptures final exam:

Me: “Do you think it’s possible to love our enemies? To love as God loves?”

Study-buddy: (After a long pause) “No. I don’t think we can.”

Me: “Then why does Jesus command us to?”

Study-buddy: “Maybe it’s something for us to aim at. A goal that raises our behavior a bit, even though we can’t achieve it fully in the here-and-now.”

Me: “Well, if that were true, then why does Jesus keep on commanding us to live this way here-and-now? His teachings seem to be replete with instructions on how we should be with each other — now. All others. Even those people society tells us are ‘them,’ or we have come to regard as ‘them.’ Including those who we don’t like and/or who don’t like us. Even people trying to do us harm.”

Study-buddy: “Maybe it’s just something we can only fully achieve when we get to heaven.”

Me: “So let me get this right. You’re saying that God incarnated to command us to love everyone, including ‘them,’ to love just as he does, while knowing full well that we can’t? Then why bother incarnating at all? Isn’t that a bit of a tease? Saying to humanity, ‘Nanny-nanny boo-hoo. I can do this, but you can’t! See ya in heaven — hopefully?’ I actually think Jesus means it. I think he actually believes we can, with divine help.”

Study-buddy: “Jarvis! We have exactly eight hours until our final exam in this class! It’s going to be a long night. Just memorize the answers to the test, will you?”

It wouldn’t be until many years after that final exam at the then-College of St. Thomas in St. Paul that I’d stumble upon the key to accurately understanding Jesus’ instruction not only to have mercy on one’s enemy, but to actually love one’s enemy.

The key is found in the inadequate translation of the ancient Greek word pronounced “agape,” which we sloppily translate into “love.” “Love” is a word that connotes so many things to us, largely implying sentiment or affection or even likes — something we humans do not have control over.

“Agape” is far better understood as “to have empathy for, to act out of compassion for, to have basic respect for (the human dignity of the other).” St. Thomas Aquinas would put it this way: the desire for the good of the other and acting on that desire. The master would say that “agape” is an act of the will, not an ephemeral feeling.

This instruction from Jesus is indeed possible on this side of the pearly gates. It’s certainly not easy. And it will take practice and habituation.

But it is possible.

I have a suspicion that because this teaching is so countercultural, so challenging at times — and the sloppy translation encourages what seems to be mutually exclusive feelings (have loving feelings for someone you really don’t like or who seeks your or another’s harm) — many Christians just shrug their shoulders and wait to get into heaven to live “agape.”

So this week, ask yourself: What if I really believed and accepted what Jesus was teaching? As something relevant to my life here-and-now, and not just in the here-after? What would it look like if I, at the very least, respected the human being underlying any despicable behavior or feelings — including malevolent feelings that another has for me?

This critical teaching from Jesus more than raises your aim. It gives you something possible to do, with God’s help. In a way, it shows us how to live in heaven, in part, here-and-now. And more fully in the hereafter.

Father Jarvis is parochial vicar of St. Bridget Parish Community in Minneapolis’ Northside neighborhood. It’s known as “The little church that can — and does.”

Sunday, February 24
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Category: Sunday Scriptures