Love of enemies


Why is love of enemies so central to the Gospel?

In the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, immediately after the Beatitudes, Jesus urges his disciples at length to respond to hatred with love (Luke 6:27-35; cf. Matthew 5:43-48). Situated in that context, this text shows that for Luke, love of one’s opponents is what characterizes the disciples of Christ.

Jesus’ words depict two ways of living. The first is that of “sinners,” in other words, those who behave without reference to God and his Word. They act towards others according to the way others treat them; their action is in fact a re-action. Such people divide the world into two camps—their friends and those who are not their friends—and are good only to those who are good to them. The other way of living does not refer first and foremost to a group of human beings, but rather to God himself. God does not react according to the way he is treated. On the contrary, God “is good to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35).

Jesus thus puts his finger on the essential feature of the God of the Bible. Source of overflowing goodness, God does not let himself be conditioned by the wickedness of others. Even when forgotten or rejected, God continues to be faithful to himself; all God can do is love. This is true from the very beginning. Centuries before the coming of Christ Jesus, a prophet explained that, unlike human beings, God is always ready to forgive: “Your thoughts are not my thoughts and my ways are not your ways” (Isaiah 55:7-8). The prophet Hosea, for his part, hears the Lord tell him, “I will not give rein to my fierce anger… for I am God and not human” (Hosea 11:9). In a word, our God is merciful (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15; 116:5 etc.); God “does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us as would befit our offences” (Psalm 103:10).

What is new in the Gospel is not so much that God is a Source of goodness, but that human beings can and should act in the image of their Creator: “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful!” (Luke 6:36). By the coming of his Son into our world as a human being, this divine Source of goodness is now accessible to us. We can become in our turn “sons and daughters of the Most High” (Luke 6:35), beings who are able to respond to evil with good, to hatred with love. By living a universal compassion, by forgiving those who hurt us, we witness that the God of mercy is present at the heart of a world marked by the rejection of others, where those who are different are despised or ignored.
Impossible for human beings reduced to their own powers, loving one’s enemies witnesses to the activity of God himself in our midst. No outward commandment can make it possible. Only the presence in our hearts of divine love in person, the Holy Spirit, enables us to live in this way. This love is a direct result of Pentecost. It is not for nothing that the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:55), ends with these words: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60). In the footsteps of Jesus himself (cf. Luke 23:34), the disciple makes it possible for the sinister land of violence to be illuminated by the light of God’s love.

Why does Saint John not speak of love of enemies?

Whereas the Gospels of Matthew and Luke emphasize the need for a love that goes beyond the circle of those who are on the same side to include even opponents, the writings of Saint John speak almost exclusively of love between the disciples of Jesus. Are we to conclude that John’s outlook is more limited?

For John as for the rest of the New Testament, the mission of Jesus is universal. He is the Word of God “who shines on every human being coming into the world” (John 1:9). He came to forgive the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). He excludes no one from his love: “All whom the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me” (John 6:37). As “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42), Jesus offers to every human being the living water that gives life in fullness.

But the life that Christ gives is “eternal,” in other words it is God’s own life. It consists in a shared existence that is called communion. This communion is first and foremost a reality in God, the flow of life between the Father and the Son, and it is expressed on earth by a communion among human beings who open their hearts to the Gospel (cf. 1 John 1:3). Those who enter this shared life leave behind them an existence which is inauthentic because allegedly self-sufficient. In John’s language, they are born of God (John 1:13; cf. 3:3-8) and are no longer “of the world” (cf. John 17:16).

To be understood correctly, John’s teaching about love needs to be set in this context. For him, love is a translation “in deeds and in truth” (1 John 3:18) of this communion in God. It is thus basically reciprocal; the one to whom it is offered must receive it in order to give it in turn. This is true first of all in God, then in us: “As the Father has loved me, so I too have loved you: remain in my love” (John 15:10). We remain in God’s love by putting the “new commandment” into practice: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34; cf. 15:10,17). In this way, the love between the disciples of Christ becomes an indubitable sign of God’s presence at the heart of the world (cf. John 13:35).

If John insists so strongly on the mutual love of the disciples, then, that is not in order to restrict love to a small group of those who think along the same lines. The aim of this love is still universal, “so that the world may believe”(John 17:21,23), so that people may open their hearts to God’s presence and enter the divine communion. But the only unambiguous and convincing sign of that presence and that communion is a love which is both given and received, a love “brought to perfection” (1 John 4:12; cf. 2:5; 4:17,18). This love, far from being a mere feeling, is a force that reconciles oppositions and creates a community of brothers and sisters out of the most diverse men and women; the ongoing life of this community radiates a power of attraction that can change people’s hearts. For Saint John, this is how God loves the world in an effective way (cf. John 3:16)—not directly, because God cannot force anyone’s heart and there is a basic incompatibility between the world that rejects God and God’s love (cf. 1 John 2:15), but by placing in the midst of the world a ferment of communion, mutual love between believers, capable of penetrating the dough and causing it to rise.

Letter from Taizé: 2003/4

Last updated: 27 July 2003