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Loving Enemies – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Luke 6:27–38

I remember when I was a young boy, I think it was sixth grade or so, and our class was filing out of school at the end of the day. The girl in front of me, Tina, dropped some books on the ground. Now, among my grade school peers I was on the lowest rung of the social pecking order, so in hindsight perhaps I should have known better. But, acting without thinking, Little Nick picked up her books and handed them to her. In response she looked at me with contempt and spit in my face, supported by the laughter of her girlfriends. I can remember Little Nick feeling confused, hurt, and ashamed. When I was older and remembered that incident I always felt very angry at Tina.

Jesus says love our enemies and our reward will be great. We will be children of the Most High. That sounds great, but loving our enemies can seem pretty hard sometimes if not totally impossible. I mean, are we supposed to not get angry at injustices and do nothing?

Well, there’s a story about a great holy warrior who witnesses a bandit robbing a peasant. The warrior confronts the bandit, and a battle begins. Eventually, the bandit nears defeat, but refuses to yield, and the warrior lifts his sword high for the final blow. At that point the bandit spits in the warrior’s face and curses him. The warrior pauses, face reddening with fury. After a few tense moments the Holy warrior sheathes his sword. “Why,” the bandit asks, confused, “do you spare me?” “If I had finished you before I reacted to your insult,” the warrior responds, “I would have been acting in the service of God. Now, I would be acting out of my own anger, killing for my own ego.”

I like that story, because it can help clear up a couple of confusions about loving our enemies. First, loving our enemies doesn’t mean not taking action in the world against injustice. Second, it’s the way we hold onto our feelings of anger or hatred toward someone that makes them our enemies, otherwise they’re more of an obstacle to be overcome in the service of something greater.

A few years ago God blessed me with a new relationship to that memory of Tina humiliating Little Nick. God opened my heart wide, and I found myself feeling an overwhelming compassion for her. She’s afraid, I thought, because if she shows that little boy any hint of kindness her friends will turn on her. At that moment, I was freed from my anger, and it was the freedom to recognize that although Little Nick deserved defending, that had nothing to do with any anger or malice toward Tina. She was already suffering in her own way.

Like in a parable, when Jesus commanded us to “love our enemies,” he was pointing to a fundamental truth behind those words. When we open our hearts enough to truly love, our enemies turn into the possibility for healing. So it’s not about treating our enemies a certain way, it’s about the fruits of relating to each other, to everyone, in the fullness of Christ’s love. Practice loving fully and our great reward is being free from holding onto feelings like anger and hatred. And then instead of enemies, we have opportunities to act in the world for peace and justice — servants — of God’s love.

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  1. Bernadette Strachan on December 19, 2016 at 16:19

    This is a very pertinent reminder for all of us. Love, trust, and Mercy….as our Pope strives to teach us this year. Circumstances will always be complicated because we have no idea what is going on in each other’s lives. And it so human to react before we contemplate in this rushed world we live in. We should all try to slow down and recognize the good Lords love and judge less harshly

  2. Ruth West on December 19, 2016 at 01:05

    Love and forgiveness is somewhat like trying to decide which came first, the chicken or the egg. One cannot really love another without forgiveness, but can one really forgive without love?
    If there is a one-word theme for the entire Bible, I think it is love. In looking up a word beginning with L in my concordance, I was shocked to see that the references on love covered pages. The summary of the commandments says it all.
    Thanks for your personal story re: the girl who spit in your face. That you could analyze it as you did required love and forgiveness and a melting of the anger, true release. God bless you!

  3. Sarah Johnson on December 18, 2016 at 16:40

    Thank you Brother for your wise words today and for the many wonderful (in the truest sense of the word) sharing of your time and yourself yesterday in Arlington. It was truly a pleasure to learn from you. Sarah

  4. martha on December 18, 2016 at 10:03

    It is difficult to allow God to move us to a place where we can forgive the offenders and forgive ourselves for holding so long to the anger. Forgiving and letting go can free us to use our energies for greater possibilities.

  5. Marie on December 18, 2016 at 08:51

    This is wonderful and so true in my life experience. I suspect that if each of us opened our hearts to look anew at past hurts, we would realize that so often the “other” lashed out at us in fear or deep inner pain, even if it appeared on the outside to be hateful or cruel or unkind. I have also discovered that my own fear and pain are the reasons I lash out at others. There’s almost always a deeper reality if we’re willing to put our egos aside and pull off the top layer or two.

  6. Michael on December 18, 2016 at 08:03

    The fact that you held on to your anger toward Tina was human, but that you later came to a different understanding of the situation is a gift

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