“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:43-45). With these words, Jesus continues to raise the bar of discipleship and outlines what the pursuit of love truly is.
For many people, as Bob Dylan wrote and Joan Baez has sung, “love is just a four-letter word.” But the love that Jesus calls us to is not romantic or mere sentiment, though this may be healthy in that when we have feelings of infatuation we are drawn out from ourselves to another, but this kind of love has no depth and is based on physical or emotional attraction, and if it is to be real it must mature to the level of friendship.
The bond of friendship and family goes beyond mere attraction and is built through shared interests and experiences. Through sharing our lives with others, working through conflicts, trust is built, and relationships will hopefully grow and deepen. Jesus, though, is calling us to mature in our growth of loving even beyond friendship or familial ties. If we love those who willingly love us in return, greet only our brothers and sisters, only those in our clique, group, tribe, or political party, what is the recompense or satisfaction in that? Agape, in Greek, loving without conditions, with little or no chance of mutual exchange, is what Jesus is calling us to strive for.
Many of us could not conceive of loving our enemy or someone who is persecuting us, because we have, at best only experienced doing no overt harm to others and loved our friends and family. But do we risk going outside of our group, our like-minded safety net? Life is hard enough and it is often safer, we believe, not to take the risk. We continue to operate from a concept of love as an emotion or feeling, because it feels good, even though without something deeper this love does not last.
How can Jesus ask us to love an enemy or pray for someone who persecutes us? St. Thomas Aquinas can be of help. He defines the love that Jesus describes as willing the good of the other as other. We make an act of the will, a free choice to accept the person as they are, to see them, not from our limited finite perspective but as God sees them, as a person with dignity. Can we pray for, embrace thoughts of support for, assume a posture of understanding, visualize positive interactions with, actively offer kind words, and resist reacting toward those who we consider as different than us? Can we resist judging and labeling others? Can we resist gossiping? Can we convict and hold accountable dehumanizing words and actions without condemning the person?
On our own, we may not even conceive of the possibility, but we can be assured that if Jesus has asked us to strive for this height and depth of love, he will provide the means and support. We love others unconditionally by allowing Jesus to love others through us. We love one person at a time and strive to reach the summit of loving our enemy. Even if we fall short, how much better would our country and the world be if we sought this as our goal? To counter divisiveness, fear, and hatred, we need to choose to engage in an act of the will to love one another as Jesus loves us.