We are presented for consideration today one of the very hardest of Jesus’ commands: "Love your enemies". This injunction comes in the very first sentence of today’s text and the rest of the extract is could be regarded as simply a commentary on it.
What we are talking about is ethics, the moral principles which are at the very heart of the Christian life. And by presenting us with this extraordinary command Jesus is going far beyond anything that has been previously proposed as a value upon which we could base our lives.
In the Book of Exodus the People of Israel were given “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as an ethical principle. Today we regard this system of proportional punishment as rather severe. But we have to look at this principle in its historical context and when we do so we see it as an important stage in the moral development of mankind. In its day it was real progress and actually a moderating principle because before this it was generally regarded as quite in order to take a life for an eye, a life for a tooth.
In a more primitive society it was regarded as permissible to take revenge often quite disproportionate to the original injury suffered. This led to vendettas lasting for generations, something which was highly destructive to society at large. The principle “an eye for an eye” was therefore brought in to introduce some form of equity into the situation and so stop people from aggravating the grievance and so effectively preventing unnecessary vendettas.
From this position society gradually progressed to a system of monetary compensation for injuries. Even today society generally works along the same lines with fines imposed for minor injuries and imprisonment for more serious cases going alongside a system of financial compensation for the victim carefully worked out by the courts taking into account the particular circumstances.
But those who choose the spiritual path realise that even this is an insufficient basis on which to live a righteous life and so there was a gradual progression to what is called the Golden Rule which is generally summarised as “treat others as you would like them to treat you”. This provides a much more positive principle on which to base one’s life, it isn’t based on reacting to injuries but sets out to build a positive society. It is an altruistic approach to life and promotes the general well-being of everyone we come into contact with.
It is no surprise that we call it the Golden Rule because when you wholeheartedly adopt this way of doing things all kinds of good things start to happen. People start to become polite and gentle and much less suspicious of each other. The more people adopt this principle the more the world becomes a better place.
Jesus includes the Golden Rule in his teaching and indeed we find it inserted into the Sermon on the Plain and included in today’s Gospel text. But Jesus actually goes one step further and takes his disciples far beyond the Golden Rule with a new teaching which is to love even our enemies. Yes, the Golden Rule is certainly part of loving your enemy, but there is much more to it such as “turning the other cheek”, “giving your tunic as well as your cloak”, “lending without hope of return” and so on.
The Golden Rule “treat others as you would like them to treat you” is based on what you would want others to do to you whereas “love your enemies” is based on the way God deals with us as exemplified in the life of Jesus himself.
I suppose it can all be summed up in the first sentence of the last paragraph: “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate”. Our task as disciples of Christ is to act in the same way as God acts which is to be compassionate to everyone even to our enemies.
The way God treats us is to be the ethic or guideline for our life as Christians. God is infinitely compassionate and merciful, he is extraordinarily patient with our many shortcomings and he puts up with all sorts of foolishness on our part. It is our task as a true disciple to imitate our master, to imitate the behaviour of God himself.
And what does God do besides showing us extraordinary compassion, mercy and patience? What he does is love us. And his love for us is so immense that he makes the greatest of all sacrifices for us by giving for our salvation the life of his own dear Son.
What we are talking about then in today’s Gospel is not some ethical system for the good of society or for our own self-interest but something way beyond this. What Jesus gives us is the very principle behind the creation of the universe: God’s infinite love for us all.
This is the extraordinary challenge that he lays before us: To love the people around us just as he loves us, just as he loves them. It is not easy and we won’t achieve it often but we know that this is what God wants from us and it is something that deep in our hearts we are glad to do. We do not do this for any reward but solely out of love and yet Jesus tells us that the rewards are tremendous. Nevertheless, we don’t regard these rewards as any kind of recompense for our efforts.
We know that simply living in harmony with the will of our creator is reward in itself, for with it comes the growing realisation of the tremendous amount that God is already doing for us.
Jesus sums this up in some of the most joyful and poetic words in the New Testament: “Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out will be the amount you get back.”
Our response to God’s love is, naturally enough, to praise and thank him. But the response that he wants from us, the response that is truly satisfying to him is to imitate his love in our relationships with all those around us. It is satisfying to God and it is satisfying to us.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket