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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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10 Comments

  1. marie on October 4, 2018 at 15:21

    Why was “Little Nick” on the lowest rung of the social ladder? The story leaves me dissatisfied because I need to know why Tina couldn’t accept your kind act, why she spit in your face? Obviously, she didn’t welcome your help. But why? I’ve been disabled my entire life. I had polio when I was three years old. And I find, too often, human behavior is not clearly understood because whomever is sharing, fails to include vital information. So, I wonder if Tina for some odd reason was made to feel horridly clumsy at home. Dropping her books instigated shame. Her feeling contempt for you, perhaps, was not the issue. Perhaps it didn’t have to do with Little Nick on the lowest rung of the social ladder … but rather her feeling like a klutz in front of her friends. We too quickly suppose ourselves to be the shameful influence when in fact the shame is full-blown within the heart of our supposed opponent.

  2. Karen wright on October 3, 2018 at 09:08

    Nicholas, this is a magnificent sermon/message. Loving those who hurt or demean me, us is so difficult. I have always visualized an experience of white snickering holding back the anger. Not so you say. But our calm silent love is an instrument for healing.
    Thank you
    K

  3. 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

    • SusanMarie on October 3, 2018 at 06:43

      One of the truest things I’ve learned about life, relationships, and others is that we truly have no idea what’s going on in the lives of others. Even if we know someone well, we don’t know their life experiences before we met them; how they were formed, what shaped them, how they processed life itself. Even with my siblings, with whom I shared parents and household and many experiences, I’ve come to realize we each have a perspective — a point of view — of that shared life. We each have reacted differently to Mom’s and Dad’s personalities, the trip to Colorado, to California, to Mexico, to the Northwoods…differently. We each may have enjoyed the conversations at daily meals or had difficulty with them. Some of us reacted to the same school and the same church experiences differently. And on and on. This has been huge for me: understanding that we all come from different “places” and different life experiences, and our personalities are different (introverts can process experiences very differently from extroverts). From this relatively new understanding, forgiveness is much,much easier for me and dare I say often unnecessary once I realize that a person’s action toward me which might be hurtful is so very often much more about them than it is about me. I’ve learned to have great compassion toward others and toward myself because in the end, we are all broken human beings trying to make our way through life, very often with a lot of baggage — at the very least with a unique point of view.

  4. 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!

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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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