Who is your neighbor ? How do you go about loving this neighbor? It is easy enough to love a friend and people who are generous and loving. What about those that aren’t? How do you go about loving someone who is mean and harms you or others? How do you love a serial killer?
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By Lou Occhi
I went to a small Catholic high school in Mississippi. We had 27 students in my 10th-grade class. Fortunately, we were blessed to have priests and nuns as our religion teachers. Our religion teacher was Fr. Gilbert. He was very outspoken, very honest, and loud. We all loved him, and his classes were always interesting. When he began to speak, you could hear the doors of the other classroom up and down the hallway closing because of his volume. Most of the material he taught us is still with me, although it is combined with all the other stuff I have learned over the years.
The one thing that I distinctly remember is Fr. Gilbert’s talk on Genesis 3:15. He told us in his very forceful manner that if we don’t remember anything else, we must remember Genesis 3:15. In verse 15 God says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at His heel.”
This is God’s first covenant with mankind. In this verse, God speaks in a singular tense when He says ‘the woman’ and her ‘offspring.’ Knowing what we now know, this is a direct reference to our Blessed Mother and Jesus.
You know the story. Adam and Eve were enticed to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In the form of a serpent, the devil told them that if they ate the fruit, they would be like gods because they would know good and evil.
Eve ate the fruit first and then talked Adam into eating it. Some say this story is implausible since women rarely can talk their husbands into eating fruit. Whatever the case may be, we know that Adam and Eve sinned. Now they knew the meaning of good and evil. They also knew that God would be upset, so they went and hid behind a tree. Surely, God would never find them in such a sweet hiding place. Then, when found, they told God they were hiding because they were naked. When God asked them how they knew they were naked, they said the serpent tricked them into eating the forbidden fruit.
That is exactly what many people and most politicians would do. The first step in trying to evade punishment is to cast blame on someone else. It might work in the business world or politics, but not with God.
We see characters in the bible trying to evade God. For example, God instructed Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the people that they would be destroyed if they did not repent of their sins. Jonah was afraid because the people of Nineveh were not friendly to the Israelites. Jonah decided to board a ship to escape God. In the end, he is thrown overboard by the crew and is eaten by a whale. Eventually, the whale throws him up on the shore. Seeing that there is no escape, he does what God had instructed him to do in the first place. As a result. Nineveh repented and was spared. Life is so much easier if we do what God wants us to do.
In today’s gospel from Mark, Jesus feels that He needs to provide food for a large crowd of followers. The disciples say that there is no way they can feed such a large crowd. Jesus then asks the disciples to bring Him the few loaves of bread and fish that they have. He blessed them and miraculously fed the large crowd. The gospel, according to Matthew, has a similar story. In Matthew’s rendition, Jesus tells the disciple to feed the crowd. They say it is impossible because they only have five loaves of bread and five fish. So Jesus takes the bread and fish, blesses them, and the crowd is fed. In both cases, Jesus is asking the disciples to feed the crowd. When the disciples decide it is impossible, Jesus shows them how it is done.
In the Old Testament, God commands what His people should not do. In the New Testament, He instructs His disciples on what they should do. The ten commandments are things we should not do. In the case of Jonah, as I mentioned earlier, Jonah was instructed to tell the people they should not continue to live in their sinful ways. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to feed the hungry followers. In other parts of the gospels, He gives his greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” You will not find a single negative word in this commandment.
That always begs these questions. Who is your neighbor is? How do you go about loving this neighbor? It is easy enough to love a friend and people who are generous and loving. What about those that aren’t? How do you go about loving someone who is mean and harms you or others? How do you love a serial killer?
St. Therese of Lisieux gives us an example of just that. There was a man named Henri Pranzini, a notorious and unrepentant killer. He was sentenced to death by guillotine for his crimes. St. Therese decided to pray intensely for the man’s conversion. On the day of his execution, he “turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him, and kissed the sacred wounds three times.” It is generally taken that St. Therese’s prayers contributed to his conversion. Just as the criminal was forgiven from the cross by Jesus, anyone can convert, even at the last moment of their life. Our prayers can convert even the most unrepentant person and save them from the eternal fires of hell.
This started me thinking about who I pray for. It is almost always for family, friends, and neighbors suffering for one reason or another. Perhaps I need to pray for someone who intends harm to me or others. Putin and Xi come to mind. It seems they could trigger another world war. Maybe I need to start praying for their conversion and that they begin to seek peace rather than conquer the world.
So, what can we take away from all this? All people are our neighbors regardless of who they are or what they have done. I remember reading C. S. Lewis’ thoughts on war. He asked what would happen if he and a German soldier shot each other at exactly the same time, and they both died. He said they would probably have a good laugh about it and embrace each other. In another book, he tells the story of a woman on a bus going to heaven. When she gets there, she sees her ex-husband running towards her. She then turns around and re-boards the bus. What will we do when we get to heaven and see someone who has harmed us? You better believe that it is better to forgive in this life rather than wait.
This takes us back to Genesis 3:15. God meted out punishment to Adam and Eve for their sin. In the same breath, He promised that there will be a redeemer in the future and that the one who brought about their sin will be crushed. No matter what we have done in our lives, God loves us. If we follow his great commandment and repent of our sins, God will embrace us in His loving arms when we join Him in heaven.