The two greatest commandments, Jesus emphasized, are love of God and love of neighbor. (Matt 22:36-40 and Mark 12: 28-31) And the way we are to love one another is as He himself has loved us. (John 15:12-17)
In the Sermon on the Mount, He was even more explicit about how we express our love:
I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. . . Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5: 38-48)
These commands have echoed down through all the ages of Christian faith, most simply and movingly in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, for whom they were the theme of life: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love” . . . and “grant that I might not so much seek to be loved as to love.” They continue to resonate, for example in the Focolare movement’s urge to “be the first to love.”
Jesus’ commands seem to leave no room for condition or qualification. Our love for others is to be limitless and never-ending, much as our forgiveness is—not seven times but “seventy times seven.” (Matt: 18:22)
And yet the circumstances of life have always raised hard questions about the command to love everyone. Let’s look more closely at the above passage from the Sermon on the Mount:
“I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” But what if the evil person is harming not just us but others as well? What if he is the leader of a horde that is roaming about raping, murdering, and pillaging (Genghis Khan)? Or enslaving his own people (Stalin, Mao)? Or conquering entire countries and exterminating entire races and classes (Hitler)? Or beheading infidels (ISIS)? Does not love of the victims in such cases require us to resist the evildoers?
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Are there not cases in which tolerating abuse encourages the abuser and therefore endangers other people?
“And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” Does not justice apply in such cases? Should we not consider whether such acquiescing would deprive our spouses and children of what is rightfully theirs?
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” What if the demand is capricious or self-serving or made solely to manipulate us? If it is, are we not justified in refusing it? Would not our refusal deter the person from treating our neighbors in a similar fashion?
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” What if the person is in the habit of making such requests not out of genuine need but as a way of avoiding honest labor and self-sufficiency? In such instances, do we not do more harm than good? Would it not be better for the person if we practiced “tough love” and said No?
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This command is unlike the others in that it can be practiced even when we are resisting evildoers and practicing “tough love.” Even in the worst of circumstances, we can forgive the individuals who do harm to us or others; we can also ask God to forgive them and give them the grace to change their behavior.
Does raising such challenging questions constitute rejecting Christ and His message? Not at all. It means seeking deeper understanding of the meaning of the message and its application to our lives. The most fundamental issue is whether His message about love represents an absolute and inalterable standard or, instead, a moral ideal to guide but not force our judgment.
Scripture is a priceless gift given to all of us collectively; but an equally priceless gift is the human mind given to each of us individually. Using the latter gift with care and humility is never an offense against God but, rather, an act of gratitude and love.
Copyright © 2016 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved