Father Donald Senior, CP

Feb. 24: Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Love your enemy

1 Sm 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23; Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13; 1 Cor 15:45-49; Lk 6:27-38


The Gospel reading for this Sunday is Luke’s version of what is considered a unique and most characteristic teaching of Jesus, the command to “love your enemy.” This challenging passage is part of what we began to hear last Sunday in Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain.”

Matthew’s Gospel portrays Jesus teaching the world gathered around him from the mountain top. In Luke, Jesus comes down to the plain and is surrounded by his disciples and the crowds. In Matthew, Jesus contrasts his groundbreaking teaching with the accustomed way of interpreting the Jewish law — “You have heard it said, but I say to you …”

In Luke, the core of Jesus’ teaching is presented directly with no contrast. In both cases, we encounter some of the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings.

Scholars who have searched both Jewish and Greco-Roman literature tell us that Jesus’ teaching about love of enemy has no direct parallels.

There are examples of moral teaching that discourage retaliation against enemies. The first-century moral philosopher Seneca tells the story of a man whose son Emperor Nero had summarily executed. The father refrained from retaliating because, as the philosopher noted, “he had a second son” and feared the emperor would harm him, too.

In another example, Seneca advises a grown man not to kick the puppies who nip at his toga, because the man is superior to the dogs. Jewish tradition, in the famous “law of talion,” urged restraint and proportionality in retaliating for injury, that is, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

But Jesus’ teaching to love the enemy goes beyond restraint or proportionality. In Luke, the love of enemy teaching is accompanied by a series of examples that have the same radical tone: pray for those who curse you, turn the other cheek for the one who strikes you, give your tunic to the one who takes your cloak.

What is going on here? In ordinary human exchanges, we give what we get — both good and bad. Reciprocity holds sway. If you are good to me, I will be friendly to you. If you harm me, I will strike back at you. 

Those of us who appreciate the lore of Chicago politics know what “pay to play” means. There must be an exchange. There are no free gifts, no free lunch, without payback.

The difference underlying Jesus’ teaching on love of enemy is its foundation in God’s own purely unconditional love for us. We are to “love our enemies and do good to them” because that shows we are “children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” We are, in fact, to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

What is truly unique about Jesus’ teaching is this astounding motivation for the most demanding of human moral behavior. It is not simply the formulation, “love your enemy,” but the motivation for doing so. We are called to act as God does, that is, with unconditional, generous and graceful love.

In formulating this teaching, Jesus draws deeply on the Bible’s experience of God as merciful beyond our understanding. Paul the apostle put it another way in his letter to the Romans (5:8): “While we were yet sinners, God first loved us and gave his son for us.”

How practical is an ethical demand like this in a world filled with violence and retribution? Jesus reveals that, in fact, we were built for love, not for enmity.

We are most true to ourselves as children of God when we strive to make moral decisions that generate love and reconciliation, even in small ways, in our families, our workplaces, our communities and our world.

From time to time, we learn examples of Christians who, in fact, live out this command. Ordinary people who leave aside bitterness over past injury and strive for forgiveness, such as veterans who visit in peace the countries where previously they had waged war.

“Love your enemy” is not a law but a disclosure of God’s overwhelming mercy and a call for us, even in fragmentary ways, to reflect it in our own lives.


  • scripture