“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). This is one of the most challenging passages in the New Testament. It is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and deals with the ages old idea of retaliation. Jesus’ teaching here completely overturns the Old Testament ideas of, “You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy” (verse 43), and “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23-25).
Over the centuries since Jesus taught this, it has rarely been practiced so well, so completely, and so successfully as it was by the Apostles and the disciples in the early Church. Consider how extraordinary was the behavior we see in the first disciples. In an environment of extreme hostility and danger what did they do? They devoted themselves not to self-defense or vengeance, but to daily prayer and works of charity. Though threatened with everything from jail, to torture, and even death, they simply kept on proclaiming the gospel. They did not strike back when they were struck, rather their love was so great that they were able to respond to the anger and hatred of their persecutors by forgiving them and praying for them. Think of Stephen as he is being stoned to death, with Saul standing by and watching, approving of it all. His last words echoed those of Jesus on the cross: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
And here are the great questions before us every day of our lives: “Why do we not accept and practice these words like we do others in the gospel?” And, “What would the world be like if most of the Christians in the world believed and practiced this moral code given to us by Christ himself?” History is replete with the failure of Christians to follow these words. Worse yet, how often have we Christians failed to live in accord with this admonition among ourselves? Or in our own lives? Why do we keep making enemies of one another, and then rationalize harming one another, by words or deeds, even in the name of God? We must get on our knees every day and thank God for his great mercy, for he is willing to forgive even these great failings against his eternal law of love, if we turn back to him and depend on his great graces to help us love one another as he loved us.
And here is the real power behind his admonition; it is through prayer that we gain both the wisdom to understand, and the courage to live out this call to love our enemies. No sincere and real conversion was ever won by violence or hatred. No real justice was ever brought about by vengeance. Only through love are we able, with God’s grace, to turn an enemy into a friend. It is through the reading of scripture and our daily prayer that we learn what God wants of us. It is in prayer that we deepen our relationship with the one who is Love Eternal. It is in and through that relationship that we see the wisdom of “loving our enemy and praying for those who persecute us.” God wants this for us. God wants us to live in this way so that he can show himself, through us, to those who as yet do not know him. He wants us to share so completely in his joy. He wants us to see all others through his eyes, so that we can do nothing less than love. Is there anything the world needs more? Is there anything more powerful than the love of God?
Lord, Hear our prayers for those who count themselves our enemies. We pray that you would give us the graces we need to: “Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, [and] persevere in prayer” (Romans 12:12}. Make of us your good and courageous disciples of love to all we meet. We pray in your name, Jesus. Amen!
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