As the religious landscape becomes more pluralistic, people, especially the young, wonder what is most characteristic of Christianity.
Today’s Gospel presents a paradox. Love of enemies, compassion, mercy and forgiveness appear as the core of Jesus’ teaching in Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” with slight variations from Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.” Yet these qualities are often relegated to the margin of Christianity. In 1927 Mahatma Gandhi, addressing a Christian group, said: “If I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, ‘Oh yes, I am a Christian.... But negatively I can tell you that much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount.” It is a sad indictment of Christianity that those who stress most its fundamentals are often characterized by militarism, advocacy of capital punishment and bitterness toward opponents. Virtually no Christian group has adopted Jesus’ teaching on love of enemy as a critical test of orthodoxy.
Yet Jesus issues four ringing commands: love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who maltreat you. He then rejects a culture of violence characterized by a tit-for-tat mentality and proposes instead a strategy of breaking the cycle of evil. Again the command is repeated, love your enemy and do good. Why? The command is rooted in the very nature of God, who is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Whereas Matthew follows this exhortation with the statement, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” Luke writes: “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful,” and only then will you be sons and daughters of God. Love of enemies is the defining characteristic of God’s family.
Love and mercy are often cheapened in common parlance. Love is not simply an emotion; it is a fundamental attitude that seeks another’s good and responds to his or her need. Forsaking punishment does not constitute biblical mercy, which is compassionate love and concern, expressed beautifully in today’s responsorial psalm, “He redeems your life from destruction; he crowns you with kindness and compassion.” Luke’s Good Samaritan, who rescues a half-dead traveler, “shows mercy” (10:37).
Luke’s Jesus does not proclaim ethereal ideals, but lives what he proclaims. The Lukan Jesus eats with and reaches out to those Pharisees who oppose him, and gives of himself to those who beg for healing or forgiveness. Only in Luke does Jesus, at the moment of his arrest, heal the wounded servant of the high priest, while calling for an end to any violent resistance (22:50); and the dying Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (23:34).
These commands can be dismissed as utopian or, worse, used by the powerful to exploit the weak. Even in the New Testament itself, slaves are told to love their masters, and abused spouses are often told to react with love and forgiveness. A true meaning of the love command is not acquiescence to evil and violence, but imitation of God’s love by freeing enemies of their hatred and violent destructiveness, “to turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just” (Lk. 1:17). In his final words to his disciples, the risen Jesus sends them to proclaim conversion and the forgiveness of sin (Lk. 24:46-47). Evil is not to be regnant in human life, but mercy and love. Love of enemies in not a substitute for the quest for a world of justice and peace, but its driving force. The nonviolent quest for justice and resistance to evil embodied by Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. incarnates Jesus’ love command.
Years ago Thomas Merton gazed upon the world’s violence and wrote: “The beginning of the fight against hatred, the basic Christian answer to hatred, is not the commandment to love, but what must necessarily come before in order to make the commandment bearable and comprehensible. It is a prior commandment to believe. The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved,” and “until this discovery is made, until this liberation has been brought about by the divine mercy, men and women are imprisoned in hate.” We who are often ungrateful and wicked, but who receive God’s mercy and love, can now see in the face of the enemy the face of God.