In the Gospel according to St. Luke, Jesus "steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem" (9:51). He sends messengers ahead of him to prepare his way, and they arrive at a Samaritan town. The Samaritans will not receive him precisely because he is going to Jerusalem, and they do not believe in the worship that occurs there.
James and John recall a similar incident in the Old Testament, in which Elijah reproved the messengers of the successor of King Ahab, King Ahaziah, from seeking advice from the foreign god Beelzebub while he was recovering from a fall. The king sends 100 soldiers to attack Elijah, who calls down a fire from heaven that kills them all. The disciples ask Our Lord if he will do as Elijah did and destroy those who rejected him by calling down fire from heaven.
Jesus reproves them for not understanding how he fulfills the Old Testament. Some ancient authorities add a verse to this one, in which Jesus says: "For the Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them" (Luke 9:55).
The human race had wandered for centuries in ignorance of mind and hardness of heart after the Original Sin. God, who had promised redemption in Genesis 3:15, began the progressive preparation of the human race to receive the Redeemer by founding the People of God, Israel. He did this by giving the Law on Mount Sinai to Moses. But the Law commanded an interior union with God, which it did not in itself convey by its works.
Paul says that the Law multiplied sin not in itself, but precisely because the practices of the Old Testament were insufficient to give grace. It is true that the people of Israel were the chosen people, because, from them, the Messiah would come. However, they had to progressively be prepared for this. They began as materialists, like all those who suffer from the Original Sin. They were spiritual children, not spiritually mature.
As a result, in the Old Testament, they had to be encouraged to pursue the good like children. This was done by a multitude of commands and by application of material rewards and punishments. The idea of the afterlife was certainly present, but its character was obscure.
For example, Job loses all his material possessions, but after he survives the temptation to curse God for this and basically argues that these are not proper rewards for virtues or punishments for sin, he is given back twice what he lost. Elijah destroys those sent against him unjustly as a testimony to his divine call as a prophet in order to prove the truth of his teaching and his God with an image of the destruction of the power of the devil through physical fire from heaven.
In the New Testament, the Law of Christ is not primarily a written law and, really, contains no material rewards or punishments. Riches or poverty are not a sign of spiritual maturity. Though there are works commanded, the true reward for living the Gospel is heaven. The new Law of Christ is primarily the Holy Spirit living in the heart of the Christian and inspiring his actions. The primary emphasis on the commandments in the New Testament is not on the letter of the Law, but on developing the spirit or right intention with which these commandments are lived. This can only be from the love of God and neighbor wrought in our souls by grace.
Since this is true, one is commanded by Christ not to pray for the destruction of one’s enemies, but to forgive them. The merciful charity of the heart of Christ is the image for the Christian who experiences the movement of the Holy Spirit of divine love in his heart. This does not mean being a doormat to other people’s injustice. One can certainly resist evil, and evil should make one angry. Such anger is good and supports one’s desire to resist and correct evil.
But if a Christian finds himself in a situation (and we all do) in which all reasonable means to redress evil done have been exhausted and still the evil persists, he has two choices: He can nurture anger and resentment, in which case he merely harms himself, or he can rely on spiritual fire from heaven.
This is the fire of charity, in which a person is so transformed by Christ as to see others from the eyes of faith and love them with the merciful heart of Christ. He can choose to forgive the injury. This is not because he is afraid of feeling angry, afraid others will think he is not a saint or afraid of reprisals from the evildoer. The Christian does this because Christ came to save men’s souls, not to destroy their lives. When the Christian sincerely forgives, he participates in the salvation of the souls of others.
The spiritual value of the act of forgiveness is immense when done from the right motives. The fire of charity both consumes our pride and makes our virtuous desires more loving. What we do from love we do more readily. When the love of the Holy Spirit motivates one’s virtues, this is the fire of Christ.
The prophet Malachi says: "He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord" (3:3). A refiner of metal heats the metal in a crucible. As the metal becomes liquid, the impurities are lighter than the metal, and they float to the top. The refiner scrapes the impurities away. The refiner will say that the metal is ready to be fashioned into the beautiful vessel when he can look into the crucible and see his image in the metal.
By his divine fire of grace within our souls, Christ purifies souls and motivates us to love as God loves. He wants to see the mirror of his eternal image reflected in our souls, refined by the eternal fire of his divine love.
Dominican Father Brian Mullady is a mission preacher and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in