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Love Your Enemies

A truck driver had been driving quite a few hours straight, and was tired and hungry, so he pulled into a truck stop and went into the restaurant to eat. While he was eating, a group of local Hell's Angels motorcyclists came into the restaurant to eat. While waiting for their food to be prepared, the Hell's Angels got bored. They began to harass the truck driver just for entertainment. They called him names, yelled at him, and so on. Then they started throwing rolled-up napkins at him. He just sat and ate quietly and totally ignored them. This upset them – they just couldn't get a rise out of him. So, finally, one of them walked over and dumped a plate of food over the truck driver's head. He still didn't react, other than to take some napkins and clean himself up as well as possible – while the Hell's Angels laughed at him. He paid his bill and quietly left to go back to his truck. The thugs joked around with the waitress after he left, saying, "You know, that fella sure was a wimp. He wasn't much of a man!" The waitress, looking out the window at the parking lot, said, "You know, he's not much of a truck driver, either. He just ran over a bunch of motorcycles on his way out of the parking lot!"

(from Our Daily Bread, February 28, 1990)

We chuckle at how the trucker handled the situation and probably can't help but admire him some, but.... that is not Jesus' way to handle enemies! How did our Lord say to respond to situations where enemies confront us? In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ told us, "Love your enemies." It's natural for us to seek revenge, like the truck driver did – but "natural" isn't always good! As Christians we are called to a higher way of life. The Lord Himself told us about this. As He said in Luke 6: 32–35:

"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For 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? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and selfish."

A very radical idea! Loving friends? That's usually not too hard. But to love our enemies? Very unusual, very difficult. And that's what Christ wants us to do.

As always, Jesus Christ practiced what He preached. Jesus just didn't say, "Love your enemies"; He really did it! When He was put on the cross, did He curse out those who did it to Him? Did He call down lightning or angry angels to "take out" those killing Him? He certainly could have done that. But He didn't. Instead, He loved them and prayed for them – "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

And the Lord is still forgiving His enemies today. For every time we sin, we make ourselves enemies of Christ. And what does He do? He forgives us and keeps on loving us.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we should be like Him. We should do the same: love our enemies, and forgive those who have hurt us. And if we really do that, it will be the case that, from our side anyway, we won't have enemies. They may still see us as enemies, but we won't see them as enemies. If, as Christ commands, we love and forgive our enemies, they really won't be our enemies anymore. St. Ephraim of Syria wrote about this sixteen hundred years ago: "Do not have any enemies except for Satan himself" ("On Admonition and Repentance", Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, Vol. 13, Eerdmans, p. 333).

There are different ways of achieving this goal of not having enemies. Years ago, a mafia boss on the island of Sicily was on his death bed. He called for the local priest to come see him and hear his confession. He had decided he wanted to get right with God before he died. The priest came and, before he began to administer the sacraments, said, "Part of getting ready to die is that you need to forgive all your enemies." The mafia boss said, "Father, I don't have any enemies." The priest was surprised and said, "That's amazing! After all the years of your violent and criminal life, you must have enemies!" The mafia replied, "No, Father, I really don't have any enemies. I killed them all" (Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin, Metropolitan Books, 1998, p. 228).

That's not the right way to end up with no enemies! We do need to take action, however, to stop having enemies, even drastic action if necessary. St. John of Alexandria was the Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, many centuries ago. One day he was serving the Divine Liturgy, and as he was lifting up the bread and wine at the altar to God, he remembered something: he had had a falling out with a priest in a nearby parish that week. St. John felt that he himself was at least partly to blame for their argument. He realized, too, that he hadn't fixed the problem. So he put the holy gifts down on the altar, bowed to the people saying, "I will return soon" and walked right out of the church. He left and found the priest and talked with him and apologized to him. They were reconciled and all was well between them. Then St. John returned to his own church and finished the liturgy (Father Bill Olnhausen, Monthly Newsletter for January 2013, St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cedarburg, Wisconsin). Whatever it takes – do it. Love your enemies enough so that you won't think of them as your enemies anymore.

The following are some ways to work on this.

Pray for your enemies

Back in the 600's A.D. there were definitely some people who considered St. Maximus the Confessor as their enemy. They hated him because he stuck to the truth about Jesus Christ and wouldn't give in to the latest heresy. They cut out his tongue and cut off his hands. St. Maximus' response was to say this about enemies: "Pray for him sincerely to God" (St. Maximus, Selected Writings, Paulist Press, 1985, p. 73). Do you pray for other people? I hope so.

That person who is hard to get along with, who irritates you, who has hurt you, who you perhaps even think of as an enemy? Put that person at the top of your prayer list and pray for him more than for anyone else.

Thank God for something good about your enemy

It may not be easy to think of something good about some people if they've done bad things to us or said bad things about us. But you can always think of at least one good thing about that person. Focus on that one good thing.

Shift your anger

Is there someone who has angered you? St. Ambrose of Milan, back about 400 A.D., said that you should shift that anger at other people to anger at yourself. Instead of being angry at someone else, be angry at yourself that you are so spiritually weak that something about that other person caused you to fall into the sin of anger. Being angry at yourself will help your anger at others to fade away (St. Ambrose, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, Vol. X, Eerdmans, p. 17).

Treat them kindly

St. Barsanuphius lived in the deserts of the Gaza area of Palestine about fourteen hundred years ago. A very holy and wise man, he received many letters seeking spiritual advice and he wrote many letters giving spiritual advice. We still have some of them today and they are a good read. One writer explained to the saint about an enemy he had, and sought advice on how to deal with the hateful person. St. Barsanuphius' advise was simple and brief: "Do good to him" (Barsanuphius and John, Letters From the Desert, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2003, p. 178). Even if someone has hurt you badly and you don't feel kindly towards them, you can still act kindly towards them, even if it's just a matter of smiling and saying, "Hi, how are you?" As St. Barsanuphius said, "Do good to him." Act kindly, and who knows? Maybe they'll start to change a bit and act a little more kindly to you. If you both keep that up, pretty soon you won't be enemies anymore!

I doubt many of you were doing a lot of reading back in the 1920s. But if you were, you might have read the world's best-seller for a while back then, All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. In this novel, Remarque tells the story of a common German soldier fighting in the trenches in northern France in World War I. One day, in the midst of an artillery bombardment, he jumped into a shell hole to try and stay safe. He was surprised to see also hiding in that shell hole a French soldier. Immediately, he thought to himself, "Ah, a Frenchman – one of my hated enemies! I must kill him quickly." He drew his knife and was about to kill his enemy when he noticed how badly wounded the fellow was. He hesitated and then thought to himself, "He certainly is too badly injured to hurt me, so why should I hurt him?" And so he put the knife away and went peacefully over to the man. It was quickly obvious he was badly injured and would soon die. Neither spoke the other's language but they could still communicate a little with their hand gestures and eyes. The dying Frenchman motioned to his mouth and the German quickly figured out he was horribly thirsty due to losing so much blood. He took out his canteen and gave the man all the water he could drink. But it didn't slow down his death, which was obviously imminent. The dying soldier nodded a thank-you, and then pointed to his pocket. The German went into the pocket and found his wallet, which had in it a picture of the dying soldier's wife and children. The French soldier pointed to the picture and then to his eyes. The German got the message. The dying man wished to die while looking at the picture of his beloved ones. So the German took the photo, held it closely to the man's face, and the Frenchman looked at it. He soon died looking at the photo with a smile on his face. As the French soldier died, the German realized they were no longer enemies, but friends, even brothers (All Quiet On The Western Front, Fawcett Crest, 1958, pp. 189–195).

The enemies were turned into friends. Why? Because of simple acts of kindness.

Do the same. Remember the words we looked at earlier by St. Ephraim: "Do not have any enemies except for Satan himself." Jesus Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, instructed us, "Love your enemies."

It's all hard, very hard. We are Christians, however, and so are called by our Lord to do as He did, even when it is hard. The Lord said in Luke 6 that He will reward us if we obey Him in this regard. He tells us in verse 35 that if we love our enemies, "Your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High." What a wonderful reward! To be children of the Most High God! That's what He promises us.

Father Andrew Harmon, Pastor
St. Matthew Antiochian Orthodox Church, North Royalton, Ohio