Linda L. Baratte, Ph.D.
The curriculum from Jesus we find in today’s excerpt from his Sermon on the Plain is so rich, so challenging, that it is hard to land on one idea for reflection and prayer. Any one of the admonitions here is worthy of a cross-stitch plaque for our family room wall or a choice for new screen-saver wallpaper. Why not go for the big one — ‘Love your enemy, and pray for those who hate you.’ Eileen Egan, Catholic peace activist and friend to Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day, called this teaching the most distinctive hallmark in the life of Christian witness, the imprimatur of Christian discipleship.
Luke is careful to describe the audience here — a great multitude, a mixed crowd of folks coming from Jerusalem, Judah, and the borderlands of Tyre and Sidon who have heard about Jesus and want to see and hear for themselves. ‘Enemy’ would have had real meaning for this group. Roman oppressors and occupiers, antipathy and schisms and controversies over which groups and leaders best represented God’s ongoing blessing, and, fast-forward, religious persecution the early Church was facing at the time of the writing of the Gospel. No lack of definition here.
Who is our enemy now? At one time, that was easy for me to answer. Growing up in Davenport, Iowa, in the shadow of the Rock Island Arsenal with its formidable munitions storage facilities, I was convinced that one of the missiles in the Russian-Cuban crisis surely had my name on it. The national high school debate topic when I was a sophomore was “Should Red China be admitted to the United Nations?” The major argument for the affirmative side was ‘the devil you see is better than the one you don’t know.’ The enemy was out there, real but far away, international but never personal. The challenge to love someone across the sea was left in the vague arena of the spiritual imagination. Was I capable of this kind of love? I never was put to the test.
Now the identity of ‘enemy’ seems so near. When our country, communities, churches, and families are shredded with ugliness, name calling, and, yes, hatred, there is not much sunlight left between Love of Enemy and Love of Neighbor. Now we know the names of those from whom we feel such distance. They are showing up as leaves on our Ancestry.Com websites. Friendships are frayed, names mentally removed from even a Christmas card list. We find ourselves surprised at our capacity for loathing. The beautiful image from our Psalm 139 response in today’s readings — that we are all a marvel to God, fearfully and wonderfully made — seems a bridge too far.
But the hard teaching remains, and we are called to be faithful to it. A line from a novel I have just finished captured my attention yesterday. “Let’s see what love can do,” the protagonist says to encourage his wife in a difficult decision that lies ahead. Let us see indeed. My curriculum for the day.
Linda is a presenter for Days of Reflection at Loyola Jesuit Center; in addition, she chairs the Mission Committee on the Loyola Board of Directors.