Here's a joke: A priest is giving a homily based on Jesus's command to love your enemies.
"Now," he says, "I'll bet that many of us feel as if we have enemies in our lives," he says the congregation. "So raise your hands," he says, "if you have many enemies." And quite a few people raise their hands. "Now raise your hands if you have only a few enemies." And about half as many people raise their hands. "Now raise your hands if you have only one or two enemies." And even fewer people raised their hands. "See," says the priest, "most of us feel like we have enemies."
"Now raise your hands if you have no enemies at all." And the priest looks around, and looks around, and finally, way in the back, a very, very old man raises his hand. He stands up and says, "I have no enemies whatsoever!" Delighted, the priest invites the man to the front of the church. "What a blessing!" the priest says. "How old are you?
"I'm 98 years old, and I have no enemies." The priest says, "What a wonderful Christian life you lead! And tell us all how it is that you have no enemies."
"All the bastards have died!"
Most of us, sadly, go through life with, for better or worse, and no matter how hard we try, a few people we may feel are our "enemies." Or, more broadly, people seem to hate us. There are people whom we've offended and to whom we've apologized, but who refuse to accept our apologies. There are people at work who we've angered, who are jealous of us or who have set themselves against us. There are people in our families who hold a grudge against us for some mysterious reason that we can never comprehend. And there are people who seem to dislike us or wish us ill for no good reason. It's a sad part of human life.
And it's a hard part of life. And sometimes, when we hear Jesus telling us to love our enemies, it seems to make things even harder.
In the Gospel of Matthew (5:38-48), Jesus contrasts what his disciples had heard in the past with what they must practice as his followers. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye.' But I say to you offer no resistance to one who is evil," he says. "You have heard that it was said that you must love your neighbors and hate your enemies. But I say to you love your enemies." Jesus is trying to move the disciples beyond what they knew into a realm of practice that will help them follow Jesus, to live according to a new law, the law of love.
But there's a problem: it seems impossible! How are we supposed to love our enemies sincerely? Are we really supposed to pray for ... whom? For people who hate us? For people who work against us? For people who want us to fail? It seems almost masochistic -- a surefire recipe for psychological disaster.
A few things might help us understand what Jesus means. Now, I'm not going to water down these passages, but as in all the Gospel narratives, it's important to understand the context of Jesus's comments, and how they may have been understood in his time.
For example, when Jesus talks about someone turning the other cheek, many Scripture scholars feel that he's talking about a particular act. The Gospel of Matthew specifies that the "right cheek." This means the blow comes from the back of the assailant's left hand, and therefore constitutes an insult not a violent assault. So some scholars say that when Jesus says the "other cheek," the idea is that when you're insulted by a slap on the cheek you should turn away and not retaliate. It's not so much an invitation for someone to keep hitting you as it is for you not to retaliate. So that may help us understand things.
Likewise, the word Jesus used when he talks about loving your enemies is not the same word that is used in other discussions of love. In ancient Greek, the language of the Gospels, there are three words for love: first, philios, which was a kind of fraternal or friendly love (and where we get the word Philadelphia) and second, eros, a romantic love.
But the word Jesus uses here is the third kind of love, agape, a sort of unconquerable benevolence or invincible goodwill. We're supposed to agape our enemies. Jesus is asking us to agape people no matter what they do to us, no matter how they treat us, no matter how they insult us. No matter what their actions we never allow bitterness against them to invade our hearts, but will treat them with goodwill.
So it doesn't mean that we have to love our enemies the same way that we speak about "falling in love" with someone or the way we love our family members. It simply means we must open our hearts to them.
And pray for them, too. In my experience, it's easier to agape someone you dislike (or who dislikes you) when you pray for them. Because when you pray for them, God often opens your heart to seeing people the way that God sees them, rather than the way you see them. And you can often have pity for people who may be filled with anger toward you.
But even when you understand all these things, and even if you read Scripture commentaries, these remain difficult things to hear. Even harder to follow. Loving your enemies and pray for those who persecute you is hard. In my life I've found it probably the most difficult thing to do as a Christian. Many years ago, for example, I lived with another Jesuit who simply refused to talk to me. He despised me. And I couldn't figure out why and efforts at reconciliation failed miserably. No matter what I did, nothing changed his attitude.
Over the course of many years, in light of that experience, and in light of meditating on the Gospels, I realized three things about loving your enemies.
First of all, some people may simply dislike you. So it's useless to try to "get" them to like you, much less to love you. It's useless to try to change them. You can be open to reconciliation, but you have no control over whether someone will reconcile with you. Part of this process is embracing your own powerlessness. Letting go is paramount.
Second, turning away from insults, hatred and contempt and "offering the other cheek" is emotionally healthy. Now, some schools of psychology say that you should always give vent to anger (rather than let it fester) but always responding with vituperation or vengefulness is rather a childish thing to do. Only a baby gives vent to his or her anger all the time. You can acknowledge your anger, perhaps express frustration you have in a calm way, but you don't have to respond in kind.
Basically, and to put it less elegantly than Jesus, if your enemy behaves like a jerk toward you, there's no reason you have to act like a jerk toward him.
Third, loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you is liberating. Too often we can find ourselves in pitched battles with the people who hate us, always seeking the upper hand, always noting who's up and who's down, always analyzing every slight. You see this in families and even in office environments, where people are trapped into cycles of vengefulness. It wears both parties down and dehumanizes everyone involved. I've seen couples, for example, whose marriages are utterly destroyed by the inability to forgive; the two become like scorpions in a jar. Jesus is offering us a way out of all that.
So what Jesus is telling us is hard, but it's not impossible. And it's necessary, too, because ultimately he is inviting us not only to forgiveness and charity but to something else: freedom and happiness. So you have heard that it was said, and you have heard that it was said to you by Jesus, who wants you to be happy.
Follow Rev. James Martin, S.J. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ