Today’s Gospel passage from Matthew contains one of the most radical (and most ignored) of Jesus’ teaching, the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
This is not a teaching unique to Christianity. Gandhi, observing that “it is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends,” said that “to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence or true religion.” And the Buddha taught his followers to respond to anger and hatred with love and goodness.
Easier said than done. My friend Aidan once descibed love of the enemy to me as perhaps the highest cost of discipleship, one of the most difficult commands of the Gospel.
Part of our difficulty, I think, stems from confusing the love of which Jesus speaks with an emotion – the deep affection and warm feelings we have for our friends and relatives. The love of which Jesus speaks, however, is not an emotional attraction. Rather it is the selfless love of another who is worthy of love, not for anything they do or don’t do for us, but because they are God’s creation and loved by God. It is a compassion, a selfless caring and love that asks nothing in return. That means we can love another even if we don’t like them very much (or at all).
Still, it is not always easy. I think of the martyr Stephen, whose last words were a prayer for his killers. I shake my head, wondering if I could do the same. So I take small steps to try to develop that kind of love. If I have difficulty with someone I try to make a point of including them in my prayers. I try especially hard to see what is good and loving in them. And, recognizing that this is something I can not accomplish on my own, I pray for the grace to love like God, loving my enemies as well as my neighbors.