In the gospel reading at Mass this weekend, from Luke’s gospel, chapter 6, Jesus is preaching to a crowd in what is called “The Sermon on the Plain.” After hearing what He said, I suspect many people might label it “The Sermon on the You Gotta Be Kidding!!”
Jesus declared, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” and, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
So, now I bet you understand why some might’ve referred to this event as “The Sermon on the You Gotta Be Kidding!!”
Can Jesus possibly be serious when He tells us to pray for people who mistreat us, bless people who curse us, do good things to people who hate us, and, the most unbelievable of all, LOVE OUR ENEMIES? C’mon, He can’t be serious, can He?
Well, as amazing as this might seem, Jesus is not exaggerating. He really wants us to do those things. The key is the definition of the word “love.” In the English language the word “love” can mean many things: lust, sex, friendship, brotherhood, fraternity, enjoyment, excitement, fond attraction, etc.
However, in Greek, the language of the original New Testament texts, the word Luke used to record Jesus’ command is agape (ah-gah-pay). This is a very specific word meaning divine love, the sacrificial love God has for all humanity, an altruistic concern for the welfare of others. It has nothing to do with lust or sex or friendship or fond attraction. (In older English translations of the Bible, the word used was “charity.”)
This is, to be frank, a major relief. It is possible to “love” someone without necessarily liking him or her. No matter how much we dislike someone, no matter how much that person may have hurt us, it really is possible to wish that person well. Sometimes, of course, “well” means that person should repent, turn away from sinful attitudes and actions, and enter into a close relationship with the Lord.
If we remember that God created everyone in His image, that He loves everyone as His precious child, and that He desperately wishes for each and every one of us to repent and put our faith in Him, then it becomes possible to care about the well-being of every person—even those we might label as our “enemy.”
When I think of Jesus’ statements in these terms, I can honestly say that I love people I strongly dislike, for example… well, I was just about to rattle off the names of some politicians who claim to be faithful Catholics but who think it’s perfectly fine for babies to be dismembered as they are being born. But I’ll refrain from mentioning those names in an effort to demonstrate love and charity toward them. Anyway, I can honestly say I love those people—as long as we define love as hoping they one day will repent, turn away from their sinful attitudes and actions, and enter into a close relationship with the Lord.
It’s not easy to love our enemies, that’s for sure. For example, I just spent the past half hour composing and then deleting multiple paragraphs that listed some of my least favorite politicians by name and lambasted them for using the word “choice” to promote infanticide. When I reread what I wrote, it was clear there was no love at all present in my heart, so I was forced grudgingly to delete and start over.
It’s certainly not easy to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who mistreat us. But if we focus on the fact that God loves these people and, most importantly, pray that Jesus will fill our hearts with grace, we can do it. In the process we will be less inclined to shout at Jesus, “You gotta be kidding!”
Also, it will be helpful if we stop watching all those angry political talk shows on cable TV. Just sayin’.