What Marks a Christian?

11 March 2006: Saturday of the 1st Week of Lent
Matthew 5, 43-48: Loving One's Enemies

The commandment of Jesus to love one’s enemies is indeed very arresting. In fact, many persons have argued that this is an extremely difficult command. Some say it is unrealistic and impractical. But far from being an idealist, Jesus’ command is urgent and necessary for our survival. In this day and age, when our nation is in a crisis, when our political institutions are in disarray, this commandment becomes the most important.

Let us first try to understand what Jesus meant by “loving one’s enemies.” We find this in the Old Testament: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19.18)” and “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt (Lev. 19.34).” Our enemies are indeed like “aliens”. They do not share our beliefs, our likes and dislikes. They are not like us. They do not belong to our circle of friends who share the same experiences and points of view. We cannot please everybody. No matter what we do, there will be people who will dislike us.

In the New Testament, the Greek words for love are eros, philia and agape. Eros is passionate, romantic love. Philia is our love for those who are dearest and nearest to us such as our family and friends. Agape is the one that Jesus used in this passage. It means that no matter what a person does to us---good or evil---we always desire and do what is for his or her good.

Agape is not just some sentimental, emotional feeling. It involves the will. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all persons. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. And thus, you love the individual who does the evil deed, but hate what the person did.

Agape is love in a social and moral sense. You only seek to defeat evil systems. We love the individuals who are caught up with the evil structure, but seek to destroy that structure. Agape is illustrated by our insistence that even war-torn Mindanao gets enough food to feed its famine-stricken people. It is illustrated by insuring that even drug-lords and criminals get a fair trial through our justice system. It is illustrated when we protect even the most hardened criminal from the death sentence. It is illustrated when we take personal responsibility to insure that mercy and fairness is imparted equitably to the rumormonger, to the blabbermouth, to the unreasonable boss even behind their backs, even when we don’t think they deserve it.

And so we ask, why is it that this commandment is very important today? Our country is in a crisis. And there are three ways to deal with this crisis. One is to rise up in arms, succumb to physical violence and hatred. But we do not want state terrorism to claim the lives of innocent victims. Or, take the road of resignation. But by doing this, there will be no change; oppression will never end.

However, organizing mass non-violent resistance based on this principle of love is the only method to face our national crisis. Love has a redemptive power. It is capable of transforming people. It is capable of evangelizing our culture. It is capable of defeating evil structures such as systematic graft and corruption infecting even the highest position of government. Agape for our enemies involves vigilance and an active participation in the struggle for justice and peace. This struggle is constitutive of our faith. This love assures the survival of the whole human race. This love acknowledges the dignity of all human beings whether friends or enemies, because we are all children of God. God’s love goes out even to the lost sheep. The Gospel tells us that God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Martin Luther King Jr. in his sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church tells the story of Napoleon Bonaparte who, at the end of his career, looked back through all the years and said: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have built great empires. But upon what did they depend? They depended upon force. But long ago, Jesus started an empire that depended on love, and even to this day millions will die for him.”

The cross is the eternal reminder of this great love that surpasses all differences. This commandment marks the Christian. Because “even sinners love those who love them (Lk 6, 32).” To love one’s enemies marks one as a child of God, because indeed God is “good even to the ungrateful and the wicked" (Lk. 6, 35). This is the way God loves.

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