You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:43-44)
We continue, then, this Sunday to hear the Sermon on the Mount in which Our Lord teaches us how we might completely fulfil the new law of the Gospel, which is the law of perfection. And today we are taught the law of perfect charity. We are not only to love our neighbours. Rather we are also to love our enemies as well, those who persecute us, those who wish and do us harm.
Now, in fact, Our Lord does not so much add an extra category to those whom we should love (that of the enemy) over and above our neighbour, so much as draw out the full meaning of what neighbour means. Our neighbour is everyone, no matter what other relationship that person has with us. To love our enemies is to make them neighbour and so include them within the scope of the great double commandment that is at the heart of the Gospel: love of God and love of neighbour. Not love as a purely emotional state, but love as the desire for and the delight in the good of the other, something that makes us act for the good of others.
The teaching that love is the central dynamic that should characterise and motivate human life and the affirmation that absolutely all people are our neighbour, and hence the proper object of that love, is the Christian message to the world as a whole. And this is a wonderful, but also an immensely challenging message. For as Christians we have all too often been very bad at loving even obvious neighbours, let alone those neighbours who are our enemies. We can often feel embarrassed about proclaiming such a message to the people around us, because of the very limited way we realise it ourselves. But here we should reflect on what our faith tells us about how we actually become more loving.
One thing that we must realise is that our ability to fulfil the law of charity is dependent on Christ himself acting within us. Our Lord is the one who manifests in his life what the Sermon on the Mount teaches. Our Christian lives are a participation in that of Christ, not an alternative to it. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading: we are the temple of God, in whom the spirit of Christ dwells. It is Christ’s spirit active within us that enable us to live out the law of the Gospel.
What this means is that we are being invited to enter into and share God’s own transcendent freedom, whereby he loves all of humanity fully. The law of the Gospel is the law of that freedom. To love our enemies, to make them our neighbour, is for a moment to let God set us free of the divisions and barriers of friendship and enmity that otherwise chain us down.
How loving we may naturally be as individuals varies immensely and depends on so many factors. Some are blessed with the kind of background and character that enables them to be very loving by nature. However, for a person who has never known love or whose ability to love has been weakened by that person’s experiences in life, whether of difficult or broken families and marriages, of injustice or even hatred shown to them, loving at all can be difficult. As Christians we are often not very good at loving, just because as individual human beings we do not have the resources to love much. Often to love even a little is a heroic act. And yet the invitation is there for all to experience, even if just for one moment, the freedom that God has and gives us to, by helping us to act lovingly towards someone else, to act for their good.
Moreover, the fact that it is Christ who enables us to fulfil the law of the Gospel points us in hope towards the next life as the time when we will be able to love perfectly, no matter how much we fail at being loving in the present. We will achieve perfect charity when we experience the full effects of Christ’s saving work within us, when in Christ we are fully made sons of the Father who is in heaven, in the beatific vision and in the resurrection. The whole of the Sermon on the Mount shows us the bright vision of what we shall be at the end of time, however dimly we mirror that vision in the present.