Episode 1 of 4 in our new series, The Teachings of Jesus.
Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. Rather, love your enemies and do good to them!” (See Luke 6:27-36.)
Love your enemies.
Jesus taught us this by his words, and by his actions.
In his life, he sought out those his own society had rejected: tax-collectors, lepers, those living on the margins because they were deaf, blind or lame.
At his death, he healed the ear of one of his assailants, pardoned the Good Thief crucified next to him, and cried out, “Father, forgive, they do not know what they are doing!”
When he rose, he breathed peace upon his disciples who were all-too-ashamed of having abandoned him in his hour of need, and restored Peter to leadership of his followers.
He left us no room to doubt, no room to argue: by telling us the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and by giving the challenge I’ve just quoted from an earlier passage in St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching us one of the key values which sets us apart as his followers. We are to love our enemies.
The word “love” which the Bible uses here is agape. In the language of the New Testament, this word means: “Choose the well-being of another.” Jesus is not commanding us to feel good about our enemies; no-one can conjure up good feeling just like that. But it is always within our power to treat other people well, and this is the root meaning of agape love.
Love your enemies.
“But,” I hear you protest, “I have no enemies!”
Let’s just check that out a moment.
What happened the last time a driver cut you up on the motorway, or a shopper arrived at the checkout just ahead of you? How did you feel? And how did those feelings cause you to act?
When Jesus said “pray for those who mistreat you”, I don’t think he was suggesting a self-righteous prayer. “Lord, make that person a more considerate driver!” I think he was challenging us to a whole new level of generosity. “Lord, that woman who stole my place in the queue – bless her, give her a wonderful day, help her deal with any stresses in her family situation. That man on the motorway – help him at work today, make all his business ventures successful, bless his family.”
There’s the person whose bad habit just gets on your nerves. St Therese of Lisieux was so irritated by the way one nun clicked her rosary beads, she made a firm resolution to be extra-kind to that sister so that no bitter feelings could poison that relationship.
Then there are the relationships with our own grown-up brothers and sisters. Whatever rivalries we had in the family home when we were growing up, will leave traces in our adult behaviour. Is there room for us to behave more warmly to one of our brothers or sisters?
If we are employed, or undertake voluntary work, we have rivals for promotion and recognition. Those we regard as friends suddenly become enemies when there is only one promotion available, or the department is downsizing and all employees suddenly have to re-apply for jobs! In such circumstances, it is all the more important to pray for the well-being of our rivals. This, of course, requires that we trust in God’s love for us as well as for them; there is no need to fear that God is going to answer our prayer by blessing the other person and hanging us out to dry – for nothing will seduce God more than the generous heart of a person who prays for others. This was the heart Jesus placed in the Good Samaritan, who wanted no expense spared at the inn!
Finally, consider that most anonymous of enemies – “The System”. At work, in church and in other voluntary groups you can and will run across well-meaning individuals who ask you to comply with Health & Safety Policies or fill out an 8-page application booklet so you can work with children or vulnerable adults. You will be tempted to say “Blow this! Just getting involved is too much like hard work.” That’s a temptation! Don’t let the system become your enemy. Love is patient! Love is kind! Love endures all things! Love even complies with Health & Safety and fills out Safeguarding paperwork with a smile. We can all do this – but we have to choose to do this.
Our democratic nation’s highest value today is toleration. Our politicians create space where we are each free to do our own thing, as long as it doesn’t affect others too much. When is a noisy neighbour too noisy? When is one homeowner’s cherished extension a neighbour’s blot on the landscape? When does free speech become the incitement of hatred? Politicians pass laws in an attempt to balance each person’s liberty.
Jesus did not say “Tolerate your enemies, and reach an uneasy truce with them.”
Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Today’s Gospel is an invitation to love our neighbour, so why have I been talking about loving our enemies? Some of our neighbours are friends. You don’t need to be commanded to love your friends! But among your neighbours are those with poor driving skills, bad manners at the supermarket, rivals for promotion at work, gossips, and well-meaning volunteers bearing tedious paperwork.
Love your enemies.
Have you worked out who they are yet? Your enemy is the person you are tempted to treat as a second-class citizen.
Our Christian faith requires a radical commitment to the wellbeing of those who oppose us. So I invite you, here and now, to pick an enemy. When we have a silent pause in our bidding prayers in a few moments, use that pause to pray blessings on the person you have chosen. And before the next week is out, put that love into practice through a word, a gesture, or a kind deed.
Do this, and eternal life will be yours!
Bonus items for on-line readers:
Twenty-six steps to loving your enemies from the writings of St John Chrysostom – follow these steps and you will be a saint in no time!