Love Your Enemy

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

For the past few weeks our Sunday gospel readings have been from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ powerful teaching found in Matthew chapter 5. Last week Jesus revealed the heart of the moral law by showing us the love behind the law. Where the Old Law forbids evil acts such as murder and adultery, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter by teaching us not to hate or lust.

This week, Jesus continues to go beyond old expectations of morality. He says, “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” (Mt 5:43-44).

Loving our enemies may seem unrealistic, in the sense that it goes against our natural inclinations. But considered another way, Jesus is being very realistic with this teaching. When we think of loving our neighbors, it’s easy to imagine only those neighbors we get along with. Jesus acknowledges the fact that this won’t always be the case. Not everyone is going to like you. Not everyone will be your friend, or have your best interests at heart. You will have enemies. If we are to take the command to love our neighbor seriously, we must account for the fact that some of our neighbors won’t be loving toward us.

The 20th century Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people” (Illustrated London News, 16 July, 1910). Any teaching about the love of neighbor must take this reality into account.

How do you do this? It’s difficult enough to love someone you find slightly annoying. How do you love someone who hates you? Jesus gives us an example when he prays for those who nail him to the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Jesus tells us to “Pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father” who makes the sun rise on the bad and good alike (Mt 5:44-45).

Loving your enemy doesn’t require you to be best friends with those who want to cause you harm. It means desiring their good. This is how St. Thomas Aquinas defined love: “The choice to will the good of the other” (Summa Theologiae). We can desire someone’s good even when they are sinning against us. This is the meaning of Jesus’ instruction to “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:39). He is not commanding us to be pacifists, only not to seek retaliation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges a right to self-defense, saying, “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others” (CCC 2265). Even in the act of defending one’s self or others, however, any harm done to the aggressor should never be sought for its own sake, only tolerated as something necessary to defend innocent life.

To turn the other cheek means that even when someone causes us harm (whether physically or in some other way), that does not give us license to harm them back. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Rom 12;19, Deut 32:35). When God gave the command to love our neighbors, he did not include an exemption for those who sin against us. Instead he warns us not to let their sin become our own. “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him” (Lv 19:17). If we respond to those who hate us with hatred, then we share in their sin and Satan (our true enemy) has won.

There will always be those who make themselves enemies of the gospel by speaking and acting contrary to truth and charity. Loving them, or desiring their good, means seeking their conversion, which can involve offering correction. Any time we find ourselves called to reprove another by correcting them or calling them to account, we must always be mindful that we do so for their good, and not for the sake of proving ourselves right. True apologetics is about winning souls, not winning arguments.

The scriptures offer some helpful advice when it comes to judging when such correction may be prudent. “Do not reprove the arrogant, lest they hate you; reprove the wise and they will love you” (Pv 9:8). The wise are humble enough to admit the possibility that they are wrong, and therefore open to correction. Love, in this case, means patient instruction. The pride of the arrogant blinds them to their own errors. Reproving them will only lead to more conflict. Love in this case means patiently praying for the softening of their hearts.

Loving your friends is easy. Loving your enemies is where the love of neighbor gets real. This is, in fact, how Jesus loves us, for even when we were his enemies because of our sin, he loved us enough to give his life so that we might be reconciled to God (cf. Rom 5:8-10). He calls us in the gospel to love perfectly, just as our Heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mt 5:48). Loving your enemies is therefore not an “extra credit” assignment for Christians who want to go above and beyond, but an essential part of discipleship.