Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you; That you may be the children of your Father, which is in heaven: For He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethen only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father, which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
I am grateful to God for the sacred knowledge that I am as bad or worse than the next jerk standing in line. And when I plead my case before God, will I be able to point my finger at someone else and say, “Look at what he did to me?” (“Of course, Mr. P,” will say the Almighty,” “But what did you do to Mr. C, and Mrs. D., and Mr. N, and Miss Q?”) Then in the end, I have a feeling, it will come down to one question: Did I love my enemies?
It’s the highest of the spiritual perfections, the Fathers allude. St. John Chrysostom writes: “Hate not then the man that doeth thee wrong, who is procuring thee such good things, and bringing thee to so great honor. Curse not him that uses thee despitefully; for so hast thou undergone the labor, but art deprived of the fruit; thou wilt bear the loss, but lose the reward; which is of the utmost folly, having borne the more grievous, not to bear what is less than it.”
I wish that I had more to say about this. If I did, I might be a better Christian. But I do know this: When I step back from a grudge against someone, after some time I can usually see that I was quite wrong too. That I also had some culpability — if indeed that grudge was all that legitimate. In fact, I would say this: Most grudges are not legitimate. Most of it is all in my head. Most deep, dark & inimitable conversations I’ve had with my adversaries happened in the vast and chaotic recesses in my own imagination and nowhere else. Perhaps my biggest enemy is this continent within — and that is what I must befriend.
But I can add this: Loving one’s enemies is a summit of sorts. Says Chrysostom: “Seest thou how many steps He hath ascended, and how He hath set us on the very summit of virtue? Nay, mark it, numbering from the beginning. A first step is, not to begin with injustice: a second, after he hath begun, to vindicate one’s self by equal retaliation; a third, not to do unto him that is vexing us the same that one hath suffered, but to be quiet; a fourth, even to give one’s self up to suffer wrongfully; a fifth, to give up yet more than the other, who did the wrong, wishes; a sixth, not to hate him who hath done so; a seventh, even to love him; an eighth, to do him good also; a ninth, to entreat God Himself on his behalf. Seest thou, what height of self-command? Wherefore glorious too, as we see, is the reward which it hath. That is, because the thing enjoined was great, and needed a fervent soul, and much earnestness, He appoints for it also such a reward, as for none of the former. For He makes not mention here of earth, as with respect to the meek; nor of comfort and mercy, as with regard to the mourners and the merciful; nor of the kingdom of Heaven; but of that which was more thrilling than all; our becoming like God, in such wise as men might become so. For He saith, “That ye may become like unto your Father which is in Heaven.”
Christ has shown us the absolute of the most godly perfections in loving our enemies. As Chrysostom explained in the above paragraph, there is somewhat of a hierarchy of virtues leading to apex — loving one’s enemies.
- Not committing an injustice against another
- If injustice is committed, to retaliate equally
- Not to retaliate at all, but be quiet
- To give up oneself to be treated wrongfully
- To give more than the other who treated us wrongfully
- To not hate the person who treated us wrongfully
- To love the person who treated us wrongfully
- To do good to the person who treated us wrongfully
- To earnestly pray for that person…
A few thoughts on this chart: Most of the time, I would struggle greatly to get past #3. Most of the time, I am in the area of #1 — not committing injustices against another. And of course, the last one (#9 — praying for my enemies) could be the key to it all. If pray for someone, no matter how toxic or depraved that person is (as if I am not), it will lead to a softening of my position to that person, and then empathy, and, eventually, true compassion, which indicates that I am on the right path.
So then, back to that line where everybody is standing there and pointing their fingers at everyone else. I hope not to be on that line, because that there right away is hell, even before the Judgment. “Perfection,” writes the Blessed Theophylact,”is to love every one.”