ColumnsSunday’s Word

Love your enemies

February 24, 2019


1 Sm 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22, 23

David spares Saul

Ps 103:1-4, 8, 10, 12-13

The Lord has compassion

1 Cor 15:45-49

Mortal Adam and immortal Christ

Lk 6:27-38

Love your enemies 022419.cfm

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We may be more familiar with Matthew’s version of today’s reading. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor. Hate your enemy.’ But here is what I tell you. Love your enemies” (Matt 5:43-44). The reference here is to Leviticus 19:18, although that passage actually doesn’t say anything about hating one’s enemies. Still, that seems to be how many interpreted it. “Love your neighbor” becomes “love only your neighbor.”

Love of neighbor makes sense in terms of maintaining the social community that allows us to assist one another in living faithful and healthy lives. But Jesus takes it further, with the injunction that we should love even our enemies.

While we know that the passage from Leviticus 19:18 tells us to love our neighbors, we are usually not aware of the full context. The complete verse says, “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” In telling us not to make enemies of our neighbors, the passage is halfway to Jesus’ idea of loving enemies.

Luke’s Gospel makes the same point, perhaps even more insistently. He begins with the need to love one’s enemies. Later on, he returns to that theme, lest we forget the topic. He piles up instances. The person who strikes you on the cheek, the one who takes your cloak, in fact anyone who asks something of you, allow it and do not seek anything in return.

If you love only those who love you, if you do good to those who do good to you, if you lend money only to those who repay you, what good is that? Sinners do the same. Rather, love your enemies without expecting a return, and your reward, ironically, will be great. Do not judge, but forgive.

This is strong medicine, and Christians have not found it easy to follow these words. Not only is it difficult to follow them, but they seem mistaken. They seem to allow the damage the enemy does by not trying to stop it, by not responding to it. In fact, without opposing the violence of the enemy, we seem to be encouraging it. And this seems irresponsible. So, how could Jesus be saying this?

Without pointing out that Jesus lived out this pattern in his own life, we can explore how it might actually make sense. Perhaps the key is to be found in the last part of the passage, where Jesus says, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and gifts will be given to you.” The notion is that, just as antagonism evokes reciprocating antagonism, so generosity begets generosity.

The late political philosopher Hannah Arendt explored the values of forgiveness in her classic “The Human Condition.” Although she was an agnostic Jew, she credited Jesus of Nazareth with bringing forgiveness into public awareness. She notes that the general tendency is to counter aggressive action with more of the same. This way leads to the spiral of violence. She states that one of the few ways to interrupt this pattern is the act of forgiveness. It is asymmetrical in that it leaves a harmful action unanswered, hanging in the air, so to speak. But by absorbing the harm, by not paying it back, the cycle comes to an end.

This is one of the ways in which we can understand the teaching, and practice, of Jesus. Love your enemy, forgive those who do you wrong. It is a gift that you can give, and it may reward parties on all sides.

For reflection: It is very difficult to love our enemies or to forgive those who have wronged us. Something gets in the way.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.