In Matthew 22:36-39, a Pharisee asked Jesus, “Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?”
Jesus said to him, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.“
19 years ago, after a journey that took some 10 years, I returned to Him. Since my coming home, I can honestly say I have loved the Lord, my God, with my whole heart, my whole soul, my whole mind, and with all my strength.
But, knowing the darkness of the human heart and all the foibles of fallen humanity — foibles of which I amply partake — I have not been able to “love my neighbor as myself.” Knowing my own wretchedness, I don’t even love myself with my whole heart, my whole soul, and my whole mind!
To love my neighbor as myself is difficult enough. But Jesus tells us we must do even more:
Luke 6:27-36, 38
Jesus said to his disciples:
“To you who hear I say,
love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
To the person who strikes you on one cheek,
offer the other one as well,
and from the person who takes your cloak,
do not withhold even your tunic.
Give to everyone who asks of you,
and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
For if you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
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?
Even sinners do the same.
If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners,
and get back the same amount.
But rather, love your enemies and do good to them,
and lend expecting nothing back;
then your reward will be great
and you will be children of the Most High,
for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful….
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.”
We are left with these questions:
- Who are my “neighbors”?
- What does “loving” my neighbors mean?
- Who are my “enemies”?
- What does “loving” my enemies mean?
Alas, most priests, if not all of the priests whom I’ve heard, don’t define or explain those terms, which is puzzling because the answers are given, of course, by Christ Himself.
In Luke 10:29-37, in response to the question “who is my neighbor”, our Lord replied with the parable of the good Samaritan:
“A man fell victim to robbers as he went down to Jerusalem from Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise, a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Note that Jesus did not identify the robbers as our “neighbors”. Our “neighbor” is the man who “fell victim to robbers” who himself had done no wrong.
In Leviticus 19:17-18, it is said:
“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And so, Luke 10 and Leviticus 19 give us the definitions we need:
- From Luke 10’s parable of the good Samaritan, we learn that our “neighbor” is anyone we encounter in our lives, even strangers, who find themselves in foul circumstances through no fault of their own.
- From the parable of the good Samaritan, we learn that to “love our neighbor” means to treat those who are in need “with mercy,” that is, with kindness and compassion, and to provide assistance.
- But the “neighbor” in the parable of the good Samaritan was a man who fell victim to robbers through no fault of his own. What about people who find themselves in foul circumstances through their own fault? This is where “love your enemies” comes in.
- Our “enemies,” therefore, differ from our “neighbors” in that “enemies” are those who knowingly do wrong.
- That, in turn, implies that, unlike our neighbors, we are not to treat our enemies — those who knowingly do wrong — with mercy, kindness, compassion, and assistance.
- But we must still “love our enemies”. So how are we to love our enemies? As Leviticus 19:17-18 instructs, to love our enemies means that:
- We “rebuke” them: Rebuke is defined as “to criticize sharply“.
- We bear no hatred for them in our hearts.
- We do not seek revenge: Revenge is not the same as to mete out justice — revenge is defined as retaliation in kind or degree; to mete out justice is defined as “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments”. (Just is defined as “morally upright or good”.) Unlike the impartial meting out of justice, “revenge” has an emotional component, which is where “hatred” comes in.
- We do not bear a grudge: Once justice is rendered, we let it go.
- We pray for them — that they repent and return to God.
Recognizing the above definitions, to “love” our “neighbors” and our “enemies” does not mean we forego justice and what is right. But we are asked to refrain from investing emotions in them — emotions of hatred, grudge-bearing, and the desire for revenge. More than that, we are asked to be merciful and pray for them.
That being said, for many of us, loving our “neighbors” and even our “enemies” is still a task that is neither simple nor easy. When we falter, just remember this:
Offered in humility and love,