‘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 sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.’
There are many hard sayings of Christ, and many paths laid out for us in this life by His Church that are difficult to reconcile with our increasingly permissive culture, but the passage above from Matthew (5:43-45) is, whilst deeply familiar to (and even treasured by) many, perhaps one of the hardest teachings of them all – a fact testified to by the infrequency with which it is actually observed in day to day life.
To be a Christian is to follow the will of Christ; to know this will, and its applications for various aspects of our lives, we have the voice of His Church to guide us. Recognition of the Church’s authority to do this is a perennial source of disagreement, both amongst non-Catholic denominations, and within the Church itself. The disagreements within the Church are mostly regarding a small group of teachings on marriage and sexual morality, and it is in this area that the Church is most often said to deliver ‘hard’ teachings. However, true as it may be that it is indeed increasingly difficult to live a faithful Catholic life in a culture that is becoming more and more hostile to traditional positions on sexual ethics, the really hard teaching of Our Lord has nothing to do with the hostility of our culture, but has always been difficult to accept.
To love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us, is not, despite what many of us may have subtly persuaded ourselves of in the past, an optional charge, or in any way just for those who are more advanced in the spiritual life – there are teachings or ways of life which are reserved for those called to the monastic vocation (the evangelical counsels, for example) but this is not one of them. Yet, many of us, not explicitly, but in a very shrewd and delicate way, justify to ourselves the idea that loving our enemies is only something which, if we do not reserve it for a select group, will be possible when we have arrived at an indefinite point in our own spiritual life – i.e.; it is not something to worry about today.
The reason that we so marginalise this teaching is precisely because it is a hard saying, and it is easier to put it on a pedestal than to practice it. As to the reason that we do not want to practice it, this may have something to do with the common assumption that religion is about how we feel. It is perfectly natural that we do not want to love our enemies, or do not feel like praying for those who persecute us (or, by implication, those who persecute our brethren), but this is not what love, in the Christian sense, means at all – it is not about trying to cultivate a particular emotion, it is about willing the good of another. The ongoing process of growing in holiness is about purifying our wills so that we progressively will the good of all, just as God does – it is about conforming our wills to His, so that we may truly become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4).
When we see Our Lord’s command in the light of our growing closer to God’s nature we should not expect it to be anything else but hard. The growing tendency to see Christianity in a therapeutic or emotional context is a pervasive one, but it has nothing to do with authentic faith, and must be combated from within – which of course means that it must be combated principally by prayer. A good way of paving the way for this though, is to look at the context in which Christ Himself puts it – He says that to love our enemies is to truly be ‘sons of your Father who is in heaven’ who ‘makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good’.
We are to love people indiscriminately, just as God gives the gift of life and sustenance to all people. God does not check first to see whether someone is a good person before He provides them with air, sunlight, food and drink, etc – all these things are delivered to the just and the unjust; we must, if we are to become true children of God, do likewise. If we complain that it is hard for us to will the good for people who do us great evil, or who we find insufferable, it is perhaps a good thing to bring to mind in these moments just how insufferable we all must be to God much of the time, how many of our sins cry out to Heaven, and that He yet still wills the good of each one of us.
Another important point here is that God sees the evil that all men do, including our own. So, when we consider God’s universal Providence, this might also give us pause to consider that, just as we may find it hard to love others who have done us harm or who we do not like, that there are people out there to whom we have done harm, and who find us very difficult to get along with as well. It is of course much easier to explain away faults in ourselves than in others, to see the speck in our brother’s eye but not to notice the log in our own (c.f.; Matthew 7:1-5), but this is precisely why we need a Saviour, and why Our Lord has issued us the commandments that He has done.
If we want to call ourselves Christians, this means doing the will of Christ. Furthermore, doing His means doing all of it, not just the bits we find agreeable. Those who pick and choose which bits of the Church’s social teaching to accept and which to ignore based on how it fits into their lives are manifestly not fulfilling this obligation, but we all fail in this regard who do not take Our Lord’s commandment to love our enemies seriously. This is far from the passing of judgement on my own account, as I am foremost amongst those who fail in this respect (as well as in a great many others); rather it is a call to myself and to all who seek to love Jesus Christ more, that we must honestly examine to what degree we have exchanged our own wills for the One we know to be Lord.
N. B. For an inspiring story of someone who took this teaching of Our Lord (and the whole spirit of the Sermon on the Mount) very seriously, and of what can be achieved by taking this path, please read this article by Peter Strzelecki Rieth on Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko.