“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
– Mt. 5:43-45
This Gospel passage is probably the hardest for us to hear. Loving one’s enemy is a tall order, and we might be tempted to say to ourselves that Jesus does not really mean this. He probably was using a tool of exaggeration to make his point, but he could not possibly be serious. He probably was trying to be shocking in order to drive home the importance and centrality of love in his proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
And yet it’s clearly there, no holds barred, crisp and clean and so demanding, especially in these times in which we like to see ourselves on the right side of all that seems to divide us. Our enemies, however we define them, are our enemies, and if we can’t convince them to see things our way, we can at least demonize them and thus feel justified in hating them.
But there it is, and Jesus is not blinking or hedging. There it is, and I cringe to think of having to love people in my life I really don’t like; I cringe thinking of having to love people who don’t deserve it, who, in fact, deserve something totally different because of what they are or say or do to harm me and those whom I hold dear; I cringe because I am being asked to love people who are different, who are so totally the opposite of what I consider to be lovable; I cringe that I have to love people who, by definition, are bad.
It seems to me that Jesus understands the difficulty, for he frames his tall order with the injunction to pray, and that might be the key to understanding and fulfilling this seemingly exorbitant command. He tells us to pray always, but in this specific instance he tells us to pray because he knows our weakness and our logic; he knows that we can’t do this on our own. We need grace and strength and ability that are divine, and will be given to us when we realize our need and ask for help.
Perhaps the order to be Christ-like in every situation and for all people comes to us not as a project to be accomplished but as an opportunity to realize that, in the end, we are all absolutely dependent on grace to make this kingdom real in the way we live our lives. Our enemies and people who perhaps see things differently than we do and experience being human in a way totally foreign to us are, in the end, brothers and sisters of a common Father, whose perspective is eternal, and not subject to the vagaries of human perspectives. A Father whose sun shines on all, and whose rain falls upon all, and who, from a vantage point uniquely his own, reminds us to keep perspective: Nothing, not one thing, is ever worth sinning against love.
The great 50 days of Easter leading us to Pentecost remind us that the rigors of the Christian life, rooted in the gift of the Resurrection, cannot be our accomplishments because if they were, we would come up short. They must come to us as a gift, when frozen hearts and attitudes are thawed by the fire of God’s love. Once thawed, our paltry hearts can perhaps regain some perspective, not only realizing our limits, but also hoping in God’s possibilities, that we might all get along, different indeed, but united in the Father.
Maybe we need to pray more – sounds like a cliché, but let’s try it this week; let’s bring our enemies, however we define them, to the heart of Jesus. Let’s mention their names, and leave them there. The Son of the Living God knows what to do, and will help us.