In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ commands us, “Love your enemies” (Mt 5:44). I’m sure I’m not alone among Christians who struggle with this commandment, not only to do it but to understand it. It seems strange, even unnatural to love an enemy. The very word “enemy” means “not-friend.” It is easy to love our friends and not to love our enemies. Nonetheless, Jesus’s command is unambiguously clear: we are to love even those whom we do not want to love.
St. Thomas, as is so often the case, helps us to understand this by making a few distinctions (ST II-II Q. 25, A. 9). First, he says that Jesus is not telling us to love our enemies as such. That is, we are not loving enemies because they are enemies, but despite that fact. Whatever is making someone our enemy is something evil—presuming that we ourselves are good!—and evil is to be hated. In fact, that is why we struggle with this commandment: on a practical level, we have a hard time separating the evil we perceive from the good that it infects, namely, the ongoing good of that person’s creation. But this distinction helps us to understand the commandment. To love our enemy involves overlooking the enmity between us and seeing his more profound good.
Second, St. Thomas speaks of the general love and goodwill Christians must have toward all our fellow men. In addition to our particular affections for those whom we know personally and well, charity extends toward those whom we know only generically. Thus, the Angelic Doctor explains Jesus’s command to love our enemies: we cannot exclude them from this general love. This “general love” is not some impersonal abstract idealism; that would render this love rather meaningless. By “general,” St. Thomas means “universal,” an all-embracing love. There is a distance in this love, but not a lack of sincerity. We can and should have goodwill toward all. A concrete way to express this universal love is to pray for everyone. Even though we do not know everyone’s name or particular needs, we share a common need for grace and perseverance.
Third, Aquinas considers the love we should have for the enemy right in front of us: a real act of charity for a real enemy. Here, St. Thomas tells us first what is required and second what is perfect. First, we must be ready to love, by real acts of love, any individual enemy who requires our love. Second, perfection in charity is found in those who love enemies even when not strictly required. When we face our annoying co-worker, rather than dwelling on the imperfection that bugs us, we could offer a genuine compliment: “Good job on that presentation,” or even, “I like your tie.” To an archrival of our childhood, if we cannot (yet!) find the words or the nerve to make amends, we can at least pray for his or her intentions and well-being. Even those who terrorize innocents and commit horrible crimes we can love: we can pray for their conversion or even visit them in their imprisonment (a corporal work of mercy!). The fact of the matter is that, with God’s help, we can recognize that even our enemies are fellow men and women, co-members of a people invited to become children of God capable of supernatural happiness. This invitation is universal, even to our enemies: Jesus’s command reminds us that even those we dislike are lovable for his sake.
The power to love in this way is not ours by nature: it is a supernatural gift. It is only because God has first loved us and poured his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (Romans 5:5), that we can love God as we ought and love our neighbor, even our enemies, for God’s sake. May the Holy Spirit guide us into perfect love, and let us pray for one another that it be so.
For more about love and hate, check out this post by Br. Humbert Kilanowski, O.P.
Image: Carl Bloch, The Sermon on the Mount