Love of one’s enemies is among Jesus’ most distinctive, characteristic and difficult teachings. Most of us have a hard enough time loving our family and friends, or even loving ourselves. But to do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us and pray for those who mistreat us seems to go beyond our ordinary human powers. And that is the point of today’s selection from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Jesus offers two reasons why we should love our enemies: It may be wise to do so on the human level, and in doing so we imitate the example of God.
Jesus was a wisdom teacher. Like other wisdom teachers of his time, Jesus often challenged common human assumptions. Our baser human instincts may tell us that enemies are to be confronted, defeated and destroyed. And so there is in our world a seemingly endless cycle of violence and retaliation. A hits B, B hits back at A, A hits B again and so on. In the end either A or B, or more likely both A and B, are left exhausted and destroyed. We see this cycle played out among small children, great nations and everything in between. But what happens when someone interrupts this cycle of violence and retaliation and makes an attempt at reconciliation? That dynamic is illustrated by today’s reading from 1 Sam 26 when David passes up an opportunity to kill his then mortal enemy, King Saul.
Another element in Jesus’ wise teaching about loving one’s enemies is the golden rule, which says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” What a wonderful world it would be if everyone lived by that rule! If we as individuals and as nations took that rule as a guide to all our actions, we might interrupt the cycle of violence and retaliation and come to enjoy real peace and happiness. While an admirable ethical principle, the golden rule still leaves us in the realm of enlightened self-interest and reciprocity. Though few persons or nations seem to realize it, it is in our mutual self-interest to treat one another well.
Jesus the wise teacher pushes us to go beyond reciprocity and enlightened self-interest to imitating our heavenly Father. In loving our enemies we follow the example of God who is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Jesus then challenges us to be merciful just as God our Father is merciful. These descriptions of God echo phrases found in Psalm 103 about our merciful and gracious God, who has compassion toward his children and does not deal with our sins as we may deserve.
The philosopher Paul Ricoeur described the dynamic in today’s Gospel text as moving from the human logic of equivalence (the golden rule) to the divine logic of superabundance (grace). Now Jesus is challenging us to take God as our frame of reference and our criterion for action. He is asking us to look at life not from our narrow human perspective but rather from God’s own perspective. God is kind and merciful to both the righteous and the wicked. And so in loving our enemies we can imitate the example of God.
By loving our enemies we can break the vicious cycle of violence and retaliation and observe the golden rule as a way of life. And we can succeed in imitating the example of our kind and merciful God. The challenge to imitate God’s example as an ethical motivation is, of course, beyond our unaided human powers. Today’s selection from Paul, who reflects on Jesus’ resurrection and ours, may help us to see how it is possible to move from the human logic of equivalence to the divine logic of superabundance. Paul draws two contrasts between Adam and Christ. Whereas the first Adam became a living being, Christ the last Adam has become a life-giving spirit. Through his resurrection, Jesus has poured forth his Spirit upon the world to give us a share in his divine, eternal life. Moreover, whereas Adam was made from the earth and returned to the earth, Christ was from God and has returned to God as the risen Lord.
We are both Adam and Christ. Like Adam, we too have come from the earth and will return to the earth in death. As Christians baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection (the paschal mystery), we hope for and already share in the life-giving Spirit that flows from Christ’s resurrection. Through Christ our final fate is not death and dust only, but rather eternal life with God. The resurrection of Jesus, as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, offers us the possibility of going beyond the human logic of equivalence to the divine logic of superabundance (grace). That is how and why we can rise to the very difficult challenge of loving our enemies. Those who rise to the occasion will surely also be loved by family and friends, and can love themselves.