Perhaps I should take this Sunday’s Gospel (Lk. 6:31-36) with me to the bank and say, “Here, see? It says, ‘Lend without expecting repayment’”—and then see how well I do in the loan department!
It has been said a number of times that Christianity has not failed; it has never been tried! That is probably nowhere more true than in this Gospel and in the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts out in this sermon with what is known as the Golden Rule. That particular saying is divine wisdom, since it came from the mouth of Jesus. But that saying does turn up in other sacred books, too, in other religions—it’s an almost universal maxim of wisdom of how to live and how to relate to other people. But as Jesus goes on, He speaks of other things that are more distinctively Christian, things that make Christianity something unique. It’s the mystery of “love of enemies” that is practically unique to Christianity. I’ve seen in some of the wisest sages—Confucius, for example, and others—who, when confronted with this question, did not come to the same conclusion that Christ did. They came to a more “reasonable” conclusion: that you love your friends and you fight your enemies, or at least bring them to justice for whatever harm they have caused.
Jesus gives us a couple of examples here of this good news. The Gospel, as you know, means “Good News,” but it’s not just “news” like some bit of information about current events. It’s “news” because it’s new and because it’s supposed to make us new. The good news is supposed to give to us, impart to us, a new way of thinking, a new way of feeling, a new way of looking at the world and each other, and a new way of looking at ourselves and at God. What Jesus is giving us here is good news, and it’s something very different, and perhaps something that his listeners did not want to hear, because Jesus is not just another scribe or Pharisee who’s rehashing the Law once again in the same tired old ways. He’s really giving something new, and this is the good news of the Gospel.
So He first gives a presentation of the natural man, the ordinary person—how we would ordinarily do stuff. What we usually do is love those who love us. What we usually do, in ordinary, common wisdom, is do good to those who do good to us. Not many of us can persevere very long at loving someone who hates us, or at doing good to someone who is bad to us. We might try to do it for a little while, but after a while, we give up. Why? Because we have learned to love and to act always with a measure of self-interest. We’re going to love—and this need not be explicit, saying it to ourselves every time, but it’s a hidden assumption—because we expect to get something out of it, something in return. We do good to others because we expect to get something back from it. We don’t do good just because it’s good to do good! We don’t love just because it’s right to love; we want something back from it. Jesus is saying here that that’s not enough. Now, it’s certainly better than doing bad to those who do good to you, and hating those who love you, but it’s still not enough—it’s not yet the Gospel teaching that we’re required to integrate and manifest in our lives. Jesus says there’s no credit in that, no merit in that. The blessedness comes when you love those who don’t love you, when you do good to those who don’t do good to you.
Now, in order to love your enemies, first you have to have some, or at least you have to perceive that you have some. There are different ways that we perceive that. It’s not always someone who does evil to us. Those are clear cases where someone might be considered an enemy, where somebody actually does real evil or harm to you. Loving our enemies in that case does not require that we invite these persons into our home or community and say, “Do more evil to us and destroy us.” No; but it does mean that we still have to forgive, that we still have to refrain from being condemning and vindictive, and that we have to try to give the benefit of the doubt. But oftentimes, the enemies that we have—or those that we perceive as enemies—are simply those that are other, those that are strangers, because we have a fear of the unknown. It might even be simply because someone is of a different race, religion, or even political party.
I read a story some years ago in one of Rachel Remen’s books. She is a doctor who often works with cancer patients and people with terminal illnesses—not only with their physical health, but also counseling them and trying to help them manage the pain and the emotional sufferings and fears that go along with having a terminal illness. She told the story of one fellow who came to her, when they were having a kind of retreat for the terminally ill with cancer. This man was an old, Slavic Jew named Yitzak who had had a really hard life: he’d been in concentration camps, had suffered a lot in his life, and he’d learned how to look at other people, strangers, as potential enemies. He’d learned how not to trust, and how to have his defenses up all the time, because of everything that he had suffered.
So, when he came into this little group there, and saw how loving and free they were in sharing and opening up to each other, he was kind of confused and taken aback. So he said, and I quote, “Vat is all dis ‘huggy-huggy’? Vat is dis ‘loving the stranger’? Vat is dis?” He struggled with that during the whole retreat. And, little by little, he kind of mellowed out, until finally the clincher came when God spoke to him.
Yitzak was out walking, and he was praying about that. He said, “God, is it OK for me to love the strangers?” And God responded to him (in his own language, of course!): “Yitzak! Vat is dis ‘strangers’? You make strangers; I don’t make strangers!”
God is trying to tell us what He told Yitzak. God doesn’t make strangers! God makes brothers and sisters! We make strangers. We make enemies. We project, and impose on people things that make us hate them, and we avoid them, and think ill of them, speak ill of them, and all the rest. God wants us to see that, and that’s why He gives us a teaching like this about loving enemies, because that’s not the way He made us. He didn’t want it to be that way. So we have to convert, we have to change, to get a new way of looking at things. One reason He wants us to do this is given in the Beatitudes, where He says, “Blessed are the merciful, because they will receive mercy.”
Then Jesus said, “And you have to be compassionate, merciful, like my Father is.” Why? Because “then you will be children of the Most High.” That’s a great thing to be. It’s something that we should examine ourselves about, that when someone sees us, observes our behavior, or listens to us speak: do they spontaneously come to the conclusion, “There is a son of the Most High; there is a daughter of the Most High”? If they can’t come to that conclusion, why not? That’s where our repentance, our conversion, has to come in—because He wants us to speak, to act, as children of the Most High.
Then let us accept this news as Good News: let it make us new! Let it change us—our lives, our thinking, our feeling, our relating. Let it be something that we will really integrate into ourselves. Let us pray that we will have the grace not only to do it, but to want to do it! You see, sometimes we don’t even want to do this stuff! We don’t want to love our enemies, we don’t want to do good to someone who doesn’t do good to us. We’ve got to start somewhere, so at least start with the desire to want to do it. And when you want to, the grace will come, and you will know it. So let us, then, make it our goal, as Jesus said, to live as children of the Most High. We will do this with the grace of the Holy Spirit, and with a little determination, and with the desire and the effort to be merciful, as our Heavenly Father is merciful.