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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