Fr Dennis Smith, 13th February,
“Love your enemies … that you may be
children of your Father in heaven”.
Do mountain heights lead to heights of human thinking? Jesus’ Sermon on
the Mount tackles huge issues and points us to the highest possible
values and aspirations, including this teaching on loving enemies,
which John Stott has described as the most admired and the most
resented of his teachings.
“Enemies” refers to anyone of any group that is opposed or hostile. A
family quarrel, a dispute between neighbours, communal misunderstanding
prejudiced views, territorial claims, or violent deeds, can all lead to
people seeing each other as enemies. And the way of the world is such
that hostilities can quickly escalate until the way back to sanity and
peace is difficult to achieve.
Along the road from Zinica to Zepce in Bosnia, there used to be two
villages, one above the other on the hillside. Croats lived in the top
one, with a Muslim community below. During the Bosnian war the Muslims
drove the Croats out with disastrous results for both villages.
The Croats had a number of wells for their village water supply, and
while they were living there the water they pumped kept the groundwater
at a safe level. But after they were driven out and the village was
deserted, the ground became waterlogged, and the hillside crumb led
down into the Muslim village.
The lesson wasn’t lost on the Muslims. “If we hadn’t driven out the
Croats, we could both have lived in peace,” they admitted, “but now
both our villages have been destroyed.”
In telling us to love our enemies Jesus puts before us a way through
mutually opposed views and actions that is demanding and difficult, yet
one that can break cycles of hostility. So how can we love out enemies?
First, we should draw on the best biblical resources, and today’s
reading from Leviticus offers some riches. Chapter 19 describes a way
of life that is inclusive, sensitive to different human needs, and
which seeks to preserve the rights and dignity of everyone in the
Rejecting slander, false judgement, vengeance of the bearing of
grudges, and insisting on honest, compassion for the needy, respect for
property, just laws and fair trade, are as relevant in today’s global
village as they were in small rural communities three millennia ago.
Everything is summed up in the words that Jesus points to as one of the
two greatest commandments: “Love your neighbour as yourself”.
Such love isn’t a vague, sentimentality; it’s firmly earthed in fair
dealings, honest values, and compassionate concern. To live by such
values, gives us a basic tool in dealing with enemies.
Second, we can turn to the example of Christians who have fought the
good fight and left an example for us to follow. One obvious example is
Dr. Martin Luther King, who through his leadership in the American
Civil Rights movement exemplified love for his enemies.
One of his sermons is entitled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart”, which
qualities, he believed, Jesus requires of us all.
It’s very easy to be soft in the sense that we are gullible,
superstitious, fear change, or allow ourselves to be persuaded by
prejudice and false argument. He quotes Adolf Hitler who, in Mein
Kampf, wrote: “By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is
possible to make people believe that heaven is hell, and hell heaven …
the greater the lie, the more readily it will be believed”.
Huge damage is done by those who on the political far right or left or
on the religious fringes pour out invective against minorities and are
believed by soft minds. By saying that we should love our enemies,
Jesus isn’t saying that we should let people walk all over us. We need
instead to be tough minded, in the sense that we have a realistic view
of the world, that we are incisive in our thinking about moral
dilemmas and the plight that many people are in, and clear in our
judgement about what really matters.
But equally vital is the need to have tender hearts. Hard hearts never
truly love; hard hearts fail the test of compassions; hard hearts don’t
see people as people, but as statistics, as objects, or as cogs in the
The moving story of rich Dives who never even greeted poor emaciated
Lazarus who daily sat near his front gate, is a salutary warning about
blind hardhearted indifference.
We need, instead, the tenderness of the Samaritan who rescued the Jew
who was bleeding by the roadside; the tenderness that can see beyond
the labels, the stereotypes, the racial or cultural divides, to give
value to every person, for each is a child of God.
Tough minds allied to tender hearts are a good prescription for giving
us the tools we need if we are to love our enemies.
But what of those who create the stereotypes and who seek to harden
prejudice? What of those who poison a situation with lies,
misinformation, or even violence? What are we to do in the face of
hatred and evil? Can any of us be strong enough then to love our
Here we look to a third source of help and the greatest of them all: to
the example of Christ himself.
Jesus’ own attitude has often been summed up in the phrase: “Hate the
sin, but love the sinner,” and there are many Gospel examples of him
doing just that.
In the passage we heard as today’s Gospel, from the Sermon on the
Mount, he takes us beyond the prescription of “an eye for an eye,”
which was designed to provide justice without seeking revenge.
Though it seems draconian to us, it a least prohibited people taking
the law into their own hands and engaging in family feuds.
Instead Jesus gives us four brief illustrations of his arguments for
If someone threatens you with injury, by hitting you in the face, by
taking you to court, by conscripting you to service, or by demanding
money from you, don’t retaliate, don’t seek revenge; instead, offer the
other cheek, and give more than has been demanded of you.
Jesus did it himself. The words of the prophet Isaiah sum it up for us:
“I gave my back to those who struck me … I did not hide my face from
insult and spitting”.
Through the whole grisly, violent business of his arrest, trials,
tormenting and crucifixion, Jesus didn’t respond in kind.
In the garden of Gethsemane, when his friends tried to prevent his
arrest, h e called out, “Put your sword away”, words which have echoed
down the centuries to make us think twice and more than twice before
meeting violence with violence.
That includes the many who find it impossible to embrace pacifism in
every circumstance, but who know that it’s right that they should
wrestle and wrestle with the creative tension that Christ’s own example
puts before us.
We believe in a God for whom truth and justice are vital. But the
nature of that truth and justice has been revealed to us finally and
supremely through a life of total love. Only such a love can break
through the spirals of enmity that separate families, communities and
John Newton who, as a slave trader, had contributed to the enmity that
blighted the world of his day, came to repent of his folly and worked
to repair some of the damage that had done.
One of his hymns has lines that remind us of the ultimate secret to
loving our enemies:
“One there is above all others, well deserves the name of friend,
His is love, beyond a brother’s, costly, free, and knows no end:
They who once his kindness prove, find it, everlasting love.”
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