The greatest Teacher I have ever known is Jesus Christ, and one of His most profound teachings is ‘Love your enemies’.
The complexity of these simple words is unprecedented. They can be understood by both a child and a theologian. Paradoxically, they can also be misunderstood by both. We live in uncertain times, full of instability on all levels, and the interactions that we have may be increasingly devoid of substance. Who can fill the void in us? Who can replace the insecurity that surrounds us? The answer is Jesus Christ.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth’” (Matthew 5:38).
I heard this phrase for the first time in primary school from one of my peers, as an argument for the fact that the injustice done to him required a response in kind. My colleague didn’t have a specific faith, but he had heard this principle at home which, amusingly enough, was used only when he was the victim and not the culprit.
The second time I came across this concept was in middle school, in history class, in Hammurabi’s Code. I also discovered that it was one of the principles of the Jewish people in the Old Testament. When it was instituted as law, it marked great progress in social justice, as opposed to the vendetta system of retribution, so common in antiquity. Compared to it, the law of retaliation was a civil ordinance and the punishment was to be executed under the guidance of the courts, eliminating personal revenge.
“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39).
At school, during break, an older boy pushed me down the stairs and shouted at me: “Repentant!” At that moment I froze, not knowing what I should do in such a situation. To figure out what the right action would have been, I turned to the one who had all the answers for me—my dad. My father, with his defining calm and ability to listen without interruption, answered me exactly like this: “Do you know what it means to be repentant? You should be glad they saw that in you! To repent means to stand by God and return to Him whenever you make a mistake.”
I think that with His advice in Matthew 5, Jesus is aiming to eliminate a hostile reaction to the one who has done evil, and is not recommending passive resistance to the problem. When He speaks of “turning the other cheek,” He is more concerned with the spirit that causes the deed rather than with the deed itself. And, yes, in some situations there is no room for interpretation, and I have to turn my cheek, because that is what Jesus teaches, through His example.
Who is my neighbour?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’” (Matthew 5:43).
To the Jews, their neighbour was another Israelite, either by birth or by conversion to Judaism. Even the Samaritans were excluded and considered strangers. In the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37, Jesus removed this narrow view by proclaiming universal brotherhood. Christian love seeks the wellbeing of all people, regardless of nation or creed. Neighbour, as it appears in the King James Bible, literally means “someone who lives close by.”
In some cases, we do not want our neighbour to become too “neighbourly” because that requires vulnerability. It means knowing the other, their problems and worries. It means getting involved in their lives, and, often, a dose of sacrifice is required.
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matthew 5:44-46)
The Greek word for love used in this passage, “agape”, denotes love or respect, in contrast to “philia”, which describes emotional love, or “storge”, love between family members. The commandment would be impossible if it required people to have “philia” love for their enemies, because they could not feel the same emotional warmth and affection for their enemies as they do for their close family members. This is not even expected. To love our fiercest enemies means to treat them with respect and courtesy and to see them as God sees them (Matthew 5:44-46).
An important lesson I learned as a child was to give in. At first I didn’t want this, because it felt like weakness. It meant giving up something in favour of the other. Over time, I discovered the benefits of this lesson, both in relating to others and in developing my own person. It is difficult to apply such principles alone. In psychology, it’s said that the first step in treating a problem is to admit that you have that problem. Maybe an analysis of our own lives will help us discover what we need, or what we may have in surplus. But this analysis must be done in relation to something—or with Someone.
Love as perseverance
If we ask ourselves today why bad things happen to good people, perhaps this deserves the following answer, which I have extracted from the biblical message given on my wedding day: “Diamond is the hardest mineral discovered, reaching the maximum value (10) on the Mohs scale. It is also a very precious gemstone. However, in order to reach that precious processed shape, a grinding process is needed, which can only be done with diamond powder.” So, one diamond grinds another to achieve maximum value. For God, we are the diamonds—even if this is hard to believe. Sometimes we need that powder—which can represent a person, an exam, a job, or a disease—to bring out the best in us. This principle cannot be applied to every situation, because in each case, God knows what is best for us, and trusting in Him will help us look with different eyes at what is happening to us.
This month marks a year since I was close to losing sight in my right eye due to a retinal detachment. The operation was successful, but the recovery process is slow and I may never see as before. However, God restored my sight through my doctor. We will have more suffering, and we will go through more problems, because they are inevitable, but what matters is the way they change us.
Jesus Christ is as relevant today as He was when he came to Earth more than 2,000 years ago. When we discover the depth of His teachings, we can no longer remain the same. Meeting Him changes lives. And, if not now, when? If not Him, who?