On love for one’s enemies

Sometimes it seems Jesus expects too much of us. The invitation he offers makes the life of discipleship look pretty good. When we look closer, however, things look different.

Jesus promises “more and better life than [you] ever dreamed of” (John 10:10 MSG). He says: Don’t worry about having enough food or drink or clothing; God already knows what you need and will give it to you (Matt. 6:31-33). “Ask and it will be given you,” he promises; “search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt. 7:7). He promises that if your burden in life is heavy, he will give you rest, for his yoke is easy and his burden light (Matt. 11:28-30).

Then he says some things that make us think his burden may not be so light. For example, if you want to be my disciples, he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27-31).

Did you hear that? How can I do that? I can’t love that way. I’m only human, after all. To love that way, I’d have to be perfect, like God. I’d need to be as merciful as God. Yet that’s the standard Jesus sets: Be perfect as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48), merciful as God is merciful (Luke 6:36).

Then it dawned on me, I didn’t understand love at all. Love is not something to understand in the mind; it’s a way of seeing one must experience in the core of one’s being. Let me tell you something I’m discovering about love, the kind of love Jesus calls us to show toward our enemies, toward those who hate us and abuse us, but that very few of us ever know.

That kind of love has nothing to do with our feelings; it has everything to do with our behavior.  It’s an ethic that governs our relationships. It’s a way of seeing that has nothing to do with our emotions and everything to do with our actions. So here’s a definition of Christian love to start working with.

To love someone as a Christian is to recognize that person as having an essential role to play in God’s ongoing creation, even if – especially if – I have no idea what that role might be. To love someone is to recognize that without that person, my life and all of God’s creation would be essentially diminished. And then it is to act toward that person accordingly.

When Fred Rogers addressed Dartmouth’s graduating class of 2002, he spoke of our relationship with others, even with those we might wish were not in our lives. “Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space,” he said. “Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not.” Then he told a story from the Seattle Special Olympics.

Well, for the 100-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line, and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long afterward, one little boy stumbled and fell, and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him. Every one of them ran back to him. One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy, and said, “This’ll make it better.” The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together, and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in that stadium stood up, and clapped, and whistled, and cheered for a long, long time. People who were there are still telling this story with great delight. And you know why. Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.

All of us are God’s children, one people in God’s household, wending our way toward the finish line together. St. Paul expressed the vision simply when he wrote that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19). Will we share the vision? Will we be good stewards of the message that has been entrusted to us?

We don’t have to do great things to be good stewards of that message. As Mother Teresa told us, we have only to do small things with great love. We have only to live our small, ordinary lives with the realization that we are intimately related to those around us, and that everyone around us is essential to our wholeness. And we are called to act toward others accordingly.

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” Jesus said; “give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:37-38).

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