The Hardest Teaching
February 02, 2003
You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I tell you: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, 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. (Matthew 5:43-45)
Reading from Swedenborg
It is a common occurrence in the next life for the evil to be severely punished when they wish to inflict evil on the good, and for the evil that they aim at others to recoil on themselves. This has the appearance of being an act of revenge on the part of the good. But it is not an act of revenge; nor are the good responsible for what happens. Rather, the responsibility lies with the evil people who are allowed the opportunity by the law of order so to act.
In fact, the good do not wish them any harm. But they cannot take away from them the misery of punishment, since they are held intent on good, exactly like a judge when he sees a wrong-doer being punished, or like a father when he sees his son being punished by his teacher. The evil who carry out punishment act from an inordinate desire to do ill, whereas the good act from a fondness for doing good.
From all this we may see what should be understood by the Lord's words in Matthew about loving one's enemy, and about the law of retaliation--which the Lord did not set aside, but opened out. That is to say, he explained that those governed by heavenly love should take no delight in any act of retaliation or revenge, but in doing good. His words should also be taken to mean that the law of order that protects good achieves this of itself by means of those who are evil. (Arcana Coelestia #8223.3)
Of all the teachings of Jesus Christ, the hardest to follow is the command to love our enemies. Everything the world teaches us, everything the world values would tell us to hate those who hate us, strike back at those who strike at us, to seek revenge for the wrongs we have endured. It's just common sense. It's just good business. It would be cowardly to do anything else. This is what the world and human nature teaches us.
But the Lord teaches us something very different. The Lord teaches us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. The Lord teaches us to offer more than what is taken from us. the Lord asks us, "What reward is there in loving only those who love you? Even sinners do that" (Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32).
This is quite consistent with everything the Lord teaches. It is the logical extension of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is the logical extension of the Two Great Commandments: Love God with everything you've got, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
So what's the problem? Why is this so hard? The problem lies in the fact that we are free to choose to be and to do good or evil. That freedom is the direct result of being constantly affected by the influences of both good and evil. The invitation to enter into either is always with us. And while good is most attractive and very powerful, evil has its attraction as well. It is also deceitful and powerfully seductive, and relentlessly greedy for whatever power and energy we have. And evil can and does present the most rational and convincing arguments for giving in. It can make us appear weak, stupid, and cowardly for considering anything else. Evil can and will do that. Evil can make it very hard to be good.
But now we come to the really hard part about this teaching. The power that evil has over us is in direct proportion to the degree that we welcome and harbor the intentions of evil within ourselves. Spiritual growth is a matter of refining ourselves, redirecting our intentions, refocusing our values. We may blame something outside of ourselves for what has happened, but we cannot blame anyone but ourselves for how we choose to react. We must take responsibility for that ourselves.
How do we make sense out of this? It's not so hard. The laws of divine providence are easy to understand. The law of evil is stated in our reading from Swedenborg. We find it in the complex laws of Karma as described in the Eastern religions and philosophies. We find it in the simple homilies of folk philosophy. I think it was put best by Charles Grodin, an actor who made his name playing goofy and somewhat dim characters. He put it this way: "It always surprises me that otherwise intelligent people don't realize that if you treat people badly, it will come back to you."
There is no escaping the consequences of how we treat other people. If we are to love and worship God, if we are to honor and follow the teachings of the Lord, we must do so with all our heart and with all our mind and with all our strength and with all our soul--with everything we've got. And not just in the easy times, but especially in the hard times. And loving God translates directly into loving the person next to us, the person in front of us.
We have all heard and believe that God is love. But the reverse is true also. Love is God. Any and every time we are willing to embrace and amplify the love in any situation, we are welcoming God and creating an opportunity for God to be present and active in whatever is happening. And that, plain and simple, is the sole purpose of life.
Now, I am intimately familiar with all the responses that jump to mind, all the "buts" and "what ifs" and the whole list of rational responses that would disprove what I have just said. But we must remember that the mind is powerful, and truth is a sword. It is a weapon that can and will serve its master well. It cares little for motivation; only for winning. It behooves us to be extremely concerned about the source and intent of our motivation. In whose service do we wield the sword of truth? Our own, or God's? Our own attitude and intention will help us to see what we want to see. As one person put it, "Attitude is the mind's paint brush; it can color any situation."
When Clara Barton was asked about a person who had once treated her badly, she seemed to have no recollection of what had happened. The person proceeded to remind her, describing in detail what had happened. Clara Barton replied, "Oh yes, I distinctly remember forgetting that incident."
Swedenborg does offer some help in living this most difficult of teachings in a most demanding world. Loving one's enemy does not necessarily mean standing passively and being abused. To allow someone to persist in doing evil is not being loving. Evil actions can be resisted, constrained, and even punished.
But whatever actions we take in response to evil, we are strongly encouraged to act, not from anger and revenge, but from compassion and love. If we were to respond to people as God would respond, then the worse they act towards us, the more sorry we would feel toward them. For one thing is certain: they are in pain now, and their own actions will come back to them and increase their suffering.
But that is not our job. Divine providence has the task well in hand--even if it is not working on our timetable.
O Lord of mercy, the world tells us to stick up for ourselves, to return on others' heads what they have heaped upon ours. Yet you tell us not to return evil for evil, but to turn evil toward good. Strengthen us in your way, against the false persuasions of the world. Help us to act, not from pain, fear, or revenge, but from love and compassion. When we have been hurt, teach us how to love our enemies, and to respond for their eternal welfare. Amen.
Rev. Ken Turley