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 children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
It is often taken for granted that “The Golden Rule” (‘Love your neighbour as yourself’) is the essence of the Gospel. It is no such thing. I know several people from whom I would run a mile if they threatened to love me as they loved themselves. When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment of the Mosaic Law, he replied of course by quoting from it. But when he spoke from himself he said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34) – a very different matter.
Today’s reading is a further formulation of Christian love. “Love your enemies” is the summit of love. The New Testament writers used the word ‘agapè’ – an obsolete word to which they were able to give a new meaning – to refer to the kind of love that moved Jesus. They could have used the word ‘philia’, meaning ‘friendship’, but this new kind of love was even wider and deeper than friendship: it was so vast that it would include even one’s enemies. “Love your enemies,” is something so astonishing that it has to be the voice of God and none other. It is normal in some religions to wish (and even to pray) for vengeance on one’s enemies, and to gloat over their suffering. Agapè breaks new ground. It is God’s kind of love: unconditional and unlimited. Perhaps we should be surprised that there is so much of it in the world, rather than so little.
Thomas Merton wrote: "Our task now is to learn that if we can voyage to the ends of the earth and find ourselves in the aborigine who most differs from ourselves, we will have made a fruitful pilgrimage. That is why pilgrimage is necessary, in some shape or other. Mere sitting at home and meditating on the divine presence is not enough for our time. We have to come to the end of a long journey and see that the stranger we meet there is no other than ourselves – which is the same as saying we find Christ in him."
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