The Commandment, the Difficulty

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may become children of your heavenly Father,

Matthew 5:44-45

Would you believe that is one of the few Bible verses I’ve committed to memory? Probably because it’s one I struggle with the most. Jesus tells us that even the evil love their own but true perfection is found in love for one’s enemies because they too are children of God. And that’s the truth whether they believe it, whether we want to believe, or even whether they’ve warped God’s love and words into blasphemy and violence.

And this is probably the hardest part of the greatest and second greatest commandments:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22: 37-40

It’s interesting to note that the first verse was said during the Sermon on the Mount and the second was in response to a “test” from the Pharisees.

And if you’re confused as to who your neighbor is, who you’re supposed to be loving as yourself, well Jesus has cleared that up too:

There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10: 29-37

Our neighbor isn’t just the person who literally lives next door or down the street from us. The Samaritans and Jews did not associate. It was abhorrent for a Jew to contemplate having to even look at a Samaritan. The divide was such that if encountering a Samaritan town, Jews would walk around it rather than through it adding much time to travel. Samaritans were ritually impure to Jews.

Jesus is clear, we don’t just get to love the people we like; the people we want to love. Everyone is our neighbor, enemies included, and so we must love everyone as ourselves. None of this is simple or easy. It is exactly what our parents signed us up for at baptism and we agreed to at Confirmation.

We live in times where we have enemies of all kinds. We have friends who wound with words and betray to the point that reconciliation appears impossible. There are people attacking the Church and Her infallible teaching through the law of man, even trying to warp the words of Jesus to suit their agendas. And there are terrorists who shoot victims down in night clubs hoping to further expand the divide between God’s children by exploiting religion and sexuality, holding those things up as reasons for hate, while denying the humanity that lies within us all deserving dignity no matter where we worship or which sex we are attracted to. We are surrounded and it is tempting to feel defeated sometimes. It is even more tempting to lash out in anger and violence ourselves.

But that’s not Jesus’ way. When men came for Him with swords and clubs, He did not fight back. In fact, He instructed the Apostles to put their swords away and ask those arresting Him why they come after Him like a robber. He even admits He has the power to to ask His Father to send legions of angels to protect Him. He tells us that those who live by the sword, will die by it. (Matthew 26: 41-56)

We don’t see His love and mercy as cowardice but triumphant. We tell ourselves this is our motto. Jesus isn’t even angry at Judas. He is pained but not angry. And He builds His church on Peter, a man who denies Him THREE times in His worst hour.

Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you… Jesus did it on the Cross (Luke 23:34), the first martyr, Stephen, did it in his dying moments being stoned (Acts 7:60). We’re called to do it from the comfort of air conditioning and often when there is no real physical threat. And we stumble, we fall, we make excuses, we flat out refuse. Our words say one thing, our hearts hold resentment and anger and our minds do not let go.

In a time of pain, it is so easy to fall into Satan’s trap and become angry, obstinate and even prideful. See that image of Jesus on the Cross and know that love, mercy, forgiveness: they are not cowardice, they are true strength, they are following God’s law and love in fullness. I struggle with this every single day. Without the Holy Trinity, I am lost and would descend even further into anger, distrust, and all kinds of foul things. Let us take Jesus at His word in today’s Gospel reading. Let us live truly as His children and become perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect.