Matthew 5:38-48
Loving Enemies

by Rev. Joseph M. Rampino

Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

Home Page
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index

Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye ad a tooth for a tooth.  But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.  When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.  If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.  Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles.  Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

“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, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just  and the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?  Do not the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that?  Do not the pagans do the same?  So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

"I say to you, love your enemies."  These words of Christ our God may be among the most difficult in all of the Scriptures.  The secular world might look at Catholicism and see on our teachings about marriage and family life the greatest burden for a modern heart, but it seems to me that our Christian insistence on forgiveness might be even more diametrically opposed to the sprit of our contemporary society.  The world teaches us to seek justice, to stand up for what is owed to us, to self-advocate, and to ensure that the guilty are exposed, shamed and removed from society.  While some good exists in these instincts - certainly Christians are not to become doormats or blindly allow themselves to be maltreated - the teaching of Christ commands us to act otherwise than worldly wisdom instructs.

We can appreciate even more deeply how revolutionary this teaching is when we consider the original meaning of the phrase "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" that Jesus modifies and surpasses.  While that phrase has come to stand for a cruel and exacting justice, it was originally a teaching of mercy.  The God who taught through Moses understands our hearts and knows that we often want more than equal repayment for offenses.  When someone harms us, we as human beings often want double for our pain, if not even more.  The Old Testament commandment might well be re-phrased, "only an eye for an eye, and only a tooth for a tooth," which alone can be a difficult call.  Seen from that standpoint, Christ's further command to "offer no resistance to one who is evil" might not only challenge us, but deeply disturb us.

So how do we follow this difficult commandment?  How do we silence our well-honed instinct to defend ourselves and our interests?  How do we do this without irresponsible self-neglect?  How do we do this without irresponsible self-neglect?  Christ illustrates this teaching through his own actions, as he always does. During his passion, we hear the Lord forgive his executioners directly: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."  Are these the words of a shrinking soul, of a doormat?  Certainly not.  These are words of divine power and freedom.  What, then, is the difference?

These are words of freedom and self-possession because they are founded in the Lord's confidence in his Father.  He knows that the Father loves him and is with him in the midst of his suffering, he knows that the Father will restore his life after having brought good out of his self-offering, and he knows that all things will be set right in the end.  Christ does not have to defend himself the way we feel we do, because he knows the Father's will.  Because his heart is anchored in the Father, he is free with regard to everything else, including offense and suffering.  In this way, he has overcome the entire world, and becomes invincible even while being as vulnerable as a person can be.  This means he suffers even more exquisitely, since he is not guarding his heart with a shield of bitterness but is truly free and remains capable of perfect love even when wronged.

This possibility is open to us as well who are members of Christ by baptism.  His father is our Father, who loves us with the same love.  God is never far from us, he will bring good out of all evil, and set all things right, without fail.  If we believe this, then not only can we love our enemies as commanded, but we too have overcome the world.