Spirituality for Today – February 2012 – Volume 16, Issue 7

Love Your Enemies

By Rev. Richard Scheiner, C.P.

"To you who hear me, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you;
bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you."

The words you are reading, I think are the most challenging words in all of the four gospels, possibly the most challenging words Christ every uttered. The radical love that Jesus describes here is the kind of love that must be the mark, the trademark if you will, of the committed Christian. And it is this kind of love that is presented so clearly and emphatically by Christ. The words Christ uses are in no way open to interpretation or modification. They are words blunt and frightening in their implication. They are words radical enough to make some of Christ's disciples want to turn away from him. It is here that Christ makes the love of enemies a kind of test of discipleship.

A photo of a handshake

Love of enemies, of course, makes no kind of sense by any earthly standard. And this was especially true for the Jews of Christ's time. They were a people surrounded by enemies who were either persecuting them or killing them. You have only to read the psalms – the psalms of lament especially – to begin to understand how the Jews asked God to treat their enemies. In psalm 55, for example, the psalmist, in speaking about his enemies, prays: "Let death surprise them; let them go down alive to the nether world, for evil is in their dwellings, in their very midst!" The Jews, indeed, were not sparing in wishing and praying for evil to befall their foes. So it is not hard to see why Christ's admonition had such a wrenching effect on the Jewish mind. They simple were not accustomed to this kind of talk; they were more accustomed to calling down God's wrath on their enemies. And Jesus doesn't tell them just once; he wanted them to remember this, so he tells them three times: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you."

As if this wasn't enough, Jesus then takes it a step further and tells the Jews to be compassionate. "Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate." This statement is remarkable and significant in two ways: First, this marks the first time in his public ministry that Jesus calls God "Father"; and second, Jesus tells us that to be like the Father is to be compassionate which translated into everyday language, as Christ does, means not to judge or condemn, but to forgive offenses and to give without counting the cost, as God himself has done . And God, Jesus reminds us, will not be outdone in generosity. "Give and it shall be given to you. Good measure pressed down, shaken together, running over, will they pour into the fold of your garment. For the measure you measure with will be measured back to you."

It is this passage from Luke's Gospel that may well be a true touchstone of Christianity, a sincere description of the genuine Christian. So often, especially in these days it seems, authorities in the Church focus their concerns on the keeping of rules and regulations, often to the detriment of the persons whom authorities judge to be breaking them.

This, to say the least, is a very sad state of affairs. It is sad because Christ never acted or spoke in that way, nor did he desire his followers to do so. Actually, his concern with the authorities of his time was mostly to criticize them.

Christ's concern was with forgiveness, with generosity, with compassion – in a word, with love. And aren't these what we, as committed Christians, should be concerned about too. They are, of course, if we heed Christ's words; to strive with all our hearts and souls to refrain from judging and condemning others; rather to forgive and pardon them, to be generous with our compassion and love, to give without counting the cost. This is truly the difficult but rewarding vocation of the Christian.