Loving the Enemy

Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos | 19 October 2021

As humans we have basic needs and vital drives. All the joys and struggles of life revolve around these needs and drives. In Orthodox teaching we call them “blameless passions” (adiavleta pathe). They are passions because we experience them and suffer from them. They are blameless because they are God-given; they do not incur guilt before God. What are they? There is the need of sustenance—bread, water and other material things. There is the need of security—to acquire things and feel safe in one’s home, one’s family, one’s society. There is the need of status—to be affirmed, accepted and respected by others. There is the need to create—to make something new, something useful, to achieve worthy goals. There is the need to be happy—to enjoy life through family, friendships, work, recreation and social gatherings.

All these needs are intrinsic to human nature. We all have them. We all strive to fulfill them. In the process, however, competition and rivalry can occur. Conflicts can reach a point of anger and rash behavior, a stage at which relationships are broken and misery takes hold. What begin as a natural attribute can turn into an evil passion through ego, selfishness, indulgence. The need of food can turn into gluttony. The need of security to greed. The need of status to vanity and conceit. The need to create and achieve into control and domination of others. The need to be happy into various forms of addictions and destructive habits.

Evil passions are blameful in the eyes of God, not so much because they break God’s rules, and God gets upset, but because they disfigure human life which is created in the image and likeness of God. As ingrained habits, evil passions imprison us in the power of evil and sin, inflicting untold suffering in marriage, family, society, the whole world. The deep causes behind much of the economic, political, and social crises we face lie in these evil passions that afflict every one of us. Unfortunately, even our leaders are equally vulnerable and can be afflicted by the evil passions.

Today’s Gospel is about the golden rule and also about loving the enemy (Luke 6:31-36). The Gospel proclaims these two principles which, by God’s grace and our willingness to practice them, help rescue us from the morass of human selfishness and destructive habits. The aim is not to eliminate the passions, which is inhuman and impossible, but to purify and sanctify them by God’s grace. When purified and sanctified, the passions serve their God-given purposes for the enhancement and joy of human life.

The golden rule. Christ said: “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” He challenges us to be the first to act, the first to reach out in various ways with good will and positive actions. Be the first to say good morning at home or the office. Be the first to be patient in traffic. Be the first to be attentive to the words and feelings of those you meet. Say good things and do not gossip about people. Give an encouraging word and a helping hand to someone in need. Be loving, faithful and honest to family, friends and all people. “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” The golden rule is a matter of deep common sense, a principle of fairness and justice, a golden criterion by which all personal and civic responsibilities can find fulfillment for the benefit of all. A famous philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, once said that before you do anything, think of what would happen if everyone else did the same thing!

Christ does not stop with the golden rule. He moves far beyond the golden rule to another principle, another way of thinking and doing, which aims to reverse the culture of excessive selfishness and greed. Christ advocates a principle by which life can be transformed from within and evil can be defeated with good. In today’s Gospel Jesus asks, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” Jesus then declares: “Love your enemies and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return . . . Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful.”

Be merciful. Be kind. Love your enemies. Jesus does not ask for easy things. He asks for hard things. And he teaches that the way that leads to life is hard but the way that leads to destruction is easy (Mat 7:13-14). Today more than ever we need to hear Christ’s challenging message. Families and friends are divided over political, social and health issues. Society lives in fear of outbreaks of violence. The very foundations of our democracy are threatened. We need to do our part in reversing the tide of conflict and annihilation. We must take not only the first step to understand those with whom we disagree, but also the second step to love those who appear to be our enemies. Be kind, be merciful, love the enemy. But are these things possible? Yes, they absolutely are possible by the power of God’s grace and our willingness to treat each other as persons created in the image and likeness of God.

You may know the true story of the widow whose only son was killed in a moment of rashness by a friend. As the years passed, the widow asked God to lift from her heart the burden of hatred and resentment against the murderer. As part of her therapy toward personal healing, she wrote a letter to him in prison to say she forgave him. To her surprise she received a reply back saying how sorry he was and how much he must have hurt her as a mother. The correspondence between the two continued and a few years later the widow started to visit her son’s killer in jail. At first it was very difficult. But gradually, by God’s grace and their good will, a miracle occurred. When his parole came up, she supported it. Eventually the two were drawn so close together that they adopted each other! This was the miracle, a miracle of grace, forgiveness and healing. What is impossible for humans alone is possible with God.

I came across a short article by J. Carl Laney, a professor of the Bible, entitled “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge.” The professor noted that when someone hurts or threatens us, we want to retaliate with words and actions. When we are hurt or slighted, we are tempted to “get even.” However, there is a Christian alternative to the never-ending stream of revenge and violence. The alternative is summed up in Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mat 5:44). Similarly, St. Paul wrote: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). Professor Laney writes: “Don’t live in your hurts but move on to the sunshine of God’s forgiving grace. Do not reply in anger, knowing that, according to the book of Proverbs, ‘a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.’” Gentleness and kindness can lead to understanding. Love and forgiveness can turn a supposed enemy into a friend.

We learn these things from the saints of the Church. The saints teach us that nothing can stand up to the grace of God. Our fight is not with each other but against the real enemies of humanity, the deceits of the devil, the power of sin, the evil passions. People are beautiful and meant to be beautiful, to be full of grace and truth. They are not our enemies but our brothers and sisters who perhaps have issues and have lost their way. We all are in some ways lost and need compassion and help to find our way again. Christian love is selfless love, not a mere sentiment of liking or not disliking a person. It is a mature stance of thinking and acting according to the demands of selfless love, even when we don’t like it or want to.

Whatever we do, let us do it in the spirit and the love of Christ. Let us do our part, wherever God has placed us, to help Christ reverse the cycle of conflict and revenge. Practice the golden rule. Go beyond the golden rule. Love the enemy. Be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful. Then, as blessed children of God, we bring to a world which is hurting and angry, confused and lost, the healing balm of God’s grace and goodness. To God the Father, together with Christ the Lord and Savior and the Holy Spirit, be all the honor, the glory, and the praise forever and ever. Amen.

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