By Michael Leen
Sunday, February 19, 2023
Lv 19:1-2, 17-18 | 1 Cor 3:16-23 | Mt 5:38-48
After six months of teaching young Tanzanian mothers how to choose, start and run an entrepreneurial business, I realized few businesses were actually…um…starting. Why? Most of these young women lacked the basic financial resources or access to capital required for business start-up.
To overcome this obstacle, I contacted Kitati Wambura, a Tanzanian man with experience in organizing community-based saving and loaning groups. Such groups, I reasoned, would provide a platform for borrowing money at a low interest rate in order to empower these women to establish or grow a small business. Together, Kitati and I helped create numerous saving and loaning groups comprised of and managed by young mothers living in extreme poverty in Mwanza, Tanzania.
One year after our initial meeting, I received news that Kitati – now a friend of mine – had been badly injured. He awoke one night to the sound of yelling from his neighbor’s house, and went to see what was happening. Just as Kitati stepped outside, he was struck from behind, forcibly swung around, and then cut across the face, chest and arm by a thief wielding a machete. Kitati’s wounds were extensive, forcing him to remain in bed for several months with the hope of recovery. Doctors speculated he might lose sight in his left eye.
In today’s Scripture readings, God calls each of us to holiness. The challenge is: How do we respond to such a call?
In the first reading from the book of Leviticus, Moses tells the Israelite community that holiness is demonstrated through love and mercy: “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart…Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Psalmist goes on to praise God’s kindness and unfathomable mercy, recounting how, despite our sinfulness, God pardons our iniquities, is slow to anger, and looks upon us with compassion.
The second reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reiterates the call to holiness, for the human body is the holy temple of God. And in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus tells us to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect.
Again and again, today’s Scripture readings remind us that we are called to holiness. How do we respond to this call? By doing the seemingly impossible: loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. Our holiness is revealed through the love and mercy we offer others.
My friend Kitati had every reason to bear hatred in his heart for his brothers who so needlessly and ruthlessly attacked him, and ample fodder to seek revenge and cherish a grudge well beyond the day of his attack. But, just as Jesus turned the notion of hatred and retaliation on its head in today’s Gospel reading, so too did Kitati prevail against the ego mind’s desire for retribution. Instead of holding tightly onto hatred and praying for a justice that is swift and without mercy, Kitati prayed for his persecutors.
How easy it would be to hate in such a situation! Yet, when I visited Kitati where he lay in bed with wounds still fresh, he spoke to me about his trial with a loving face, and he mercifully prayed for those who so grievously wronged him.
Loving our enemies reflects the very compassion that God bestows on each of us daily, a compassion grounded in love and mercy, the true fruits of holiness to which we are all joyfully called.
Michael Leen is a returned Maryknoll lay missioner who served in Tanzania. This reflection was previously published in 2017.
To read other Scripture reflections published by the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, click here.
Featured image: a tailoring class at the LuLu Project helps teenage mothers in Mwanza, Tanzania discover their talents, plan their futures and start small businesses. (Courtesy of Michael Leen/Tanzania)