‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Breaking the mould – loving our enemies
As with much in his Sermon on the Mount, here Jesus challenges us to turn worldly thinking on its head – love your enemies he says…loving your friends and those you like is easy, you don’t need to follow me to do that.
To understand what this means for us, we have to ask
– Who is our ‘enemy’?
‘Enemy’ is a very strong and pejorative word. Enemies could be people we know…former friends with whom we had a major fallout…people who oppose what we do or what we believe in, who block and prevent us…people who have done harmful, spiteful, even criminal things against us or our loved ones. Or they might be people whose faces we do not know but who threaten our society: terrorists, people who plant bombs…or people we are at war with. Or even enemies against society – abusers, drug dealers, fraudsters…
– How can we ‘love’ our enemies?
Jesus is challenging us to be perfect, yet we know we are far from perfect…so how do we really love and forgive those we see as enemies?
We can start by casting aside a feeling of superiority and asking ‘are we really any better?’ – can we cast the first stone? We can think about why they act as they do or are as they are – can we see life and situations from their point of view? We can recognise that hate and anger are conditions that destroy the well-being of those who have those feelings as much as, or maybe more than, those towards whom they are directed.
But even if we can rationalise behaviour, how do we move on? Do we need to like people to love them? How do we replace hate and anger by understanding and respect, and ultimately move towards reconciliation? Do we start with their repentance or our forgiveness? Just as we do not need to be deserving of God’s love because he loved us first, unconditionally, so we should not look for repentance from ‘the enemy’ but need to forgive first, unconditionally, to open the door to repentance and then to reconciliation.
We can be inspired by the example of those who have risen from great personal pain and abuse to love the enemies that afflicted them: Nelson Mandela, who emerged from Robben Island to embrace his Afrikaner oppressors and lead a re-born multi-race South Africa; Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie was killed in the IRA bombing at Enniskillen in November 1987, whose calls for forgiveness and reconciliation were a turning point in finding a peaceful resolution of the troubles in Northern Ireland…“I will pray for these men tonight and every night”. Jesus on the cross forgave his enemies, those who had abused him physically and mentally and eventually nailed him to the cross. This was the ultimate sacrifice of course – and for us to love and forgive our enemies must require sacrifice, putting our own esteem and self-interest to one side, and taking risk – we need to take the first step, to act without vindictiveness or blame.
So in reflecting on this passage, we can ask
- Who is my enemy?
- Is there a broken relationship I would like to heal?
- How can I bring love to bear on the situation?