In today’s Gospel, Jesus declares:
“To you who hear Me, I say, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and to him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well.
Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. 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 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. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-36.)
Love of enemies and persecutors is a teaching that is unique to Jesus. Many of us would want to do what Jesus teaches but wonder how it could be possible since loving our enemies goes against our natural instincts. Jesus’ concern is that we recognize each other as children of God and that we keep our hearts clean from negative feelings.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains that we can love our enemies in regard to their nature, which is how God created them: “Love of one’s enemies may mean that we love them as to their nature, but in general: and in this sense charity requires that we should love our enemies, namely, that in loving God and our neighbor, we should not exclude our enemies from the love given to our neighbor in general” (2a2ae. 25, 8).
Thomas recognizes that, as long as we love our enemies in a general way, we may not have a special reaching out to our enemies: “Love of one’s enemies may be considered as specially directed to them, namely, that we should have a special movement of love towards our enemies. Charity does not require this absolutely, because it does not require that we should have a special movement of love to every individual man, since this would be impossible (2a2ae. 25, 8).
However, if our enemies are in need, we should be disposed to help them, if necessary: “Charity does require this, in respect of our being prepared in mind, namely, that we should be ready to love our enemies individually, if the necessity were to occur” (2a2ae. 25, 8).
To be friendly towards an enemy, even when not necessary is, according to Thomas, an act of perfection, in our love of God, which is not a command but a counsel of Jesus: “That man should actually do so, and love his enemy for God’s sake, without it being necessary for him to do so, belongs to the perfection of charity. For since man loves his neighbor, out of charity, for God’s sake, the more he loves God, the more does he put enmities aside and show love towards his neighbor: thus if we loved a certain man very much, we would love his children though they were unfriendly towards us” (2a2ae. 25, 8).
Thomas wants us to recognize that we should not let our natural reactions dominate our relationships with others: “Everything naturally hates its contrary as such. Now our enemies are contrary to us, as enemies, wherefore this itself should be hateful to us, for their enmity should displease us. They are not, however, contrary to us, as men and capable of happiness: and it is as such that we are bound to love them” (2a2ae. 25, 8, ad 2).
Thomas recalls that Augustine taught: “To do good to one’s enemies is the height of perfection” [Augustine, Enchiridion lxxiii]. Thomas reflects: “Now charity does not require us to do that which belongs to its perfection. Therefore charity does not require us to show the signs and effects of love to our enemies” (2a2ae. 25, 9).
Thomas considers it necessary that we should love our enemies in a general way, even if not as individuals: “The effects and signs of charity are the result of inward love, and are in proportion with it. Now it is absolutely necessary, for the fulfilment of the precept, that we should inwardly love our enemies in general, but not individually, except as regards the mind being prepared to do so” (2a2ae. 25, 9).
Nevertheless, according to Thomas, signs of love that are shown to others in general should be shown to our enemies as well: “We must accordingly apply this to the showing of the effects and signs of love. For some of the signs and favors of love are shown to our neighbors in general, as when we pray for all the faithful, or for a whole people, or when anyone bestows a favor on a whole community: and the fulfilment of the precept requires that we should show such like favors or signs of love towards our enemies” (2a2ae. 25, 9).
If we discriminate against our enemies, we are being vengeful: “For if we did not so, it would be a proof of vengeful spite, and contrary to what is written (Lev. 19:18): ‘Seek not revenge, nor be mindful of the injury of thy citizens’” (2a2ae. 25, 9).
Signs of affection that are given to particular persons need not be given to our enemies: “But there are other favors or signs of love, which one shows to certain persons in particular: and it is not necessary for salvation that we show our enemies such like favors and signs of love, except as regards being ready in our minds, for instance to come to their assistance in a case of urgency, according to Prov. 25:21: ‘If thy enemy be hungry, give him to eat; if he thirst, give him . . . drink’ (2a2ae. 25, 9).
However, to give such signs of affection are a sign of perfection, which goes beyond the minimum: “Outside cases of urgency, to show such like favors to an enemy belongs to the perfection of charity, whereby we not only beware, as in duty bound, of being overcome by evil, but also wish to overcome evil by good (Rm. 12:21), which belongs to perfection: for then we not only beware of being drawn into hatred on account of the hurt done to us, but purpose to induce our enemy to love us on account of our kindliness” (2a2ae. 25, 9).
Thomas maintains that both love of friends and of enemies must be considered in relation to love of God: “God is the reason for our loving our neighbor out of charity. When therefore it is asked which is better or more meritorious, to love one’s friend or one’s enemy, these two loves may be compared in two ways, first, on the part of our neighbor whom we love, secondly, on the part of the reason for which we love him” (2a2ae. 27, 7).
Thomas grants that there is a genuine value in loving a good person: “Love of one’s friend surpasses love of one’s enemy, because a friend is both better and more closely united to us, so that he is a more suitable matter of love and consequently the act of love that passes over this matter, is better, and therefore its opposite is worse, for it is worse to hate a friend than an enemy” (2a2ae. 27, 7).
However, when love of an enemy or a friend is motivated by love of God, loving an enemy may be better: “It is better to love one’s enemy than one’s friend, and this for two reasons. First, because it is possible to love one’s friend for another reason than God, whereas God is the only reason for loving one’s enemy. Secondly, because if we suppose that both are loved for God, our love for God is proved to be all the stronger through carrying a man’s affections to things which are furthest from him, namely, to the love of his enemies, even as the power of a furnace is proved to be the stronger, according as it throws its heat to more distant objects. Hence our love for God is proved to be so much the stronger, as the more difficult are the things we accomplish for its sake, just as the power of fire is so much the stronger, as it is able to set fire to a less inflammable matter” (2a2ae. 27, 7).
Thomas allows that our love for a friend may be stronger: “Yet just as the same fire acts with greater force on what is near than on what is distant, so too, charity loves with greater fervor those who are united to us than those who are far removed; and in this respect the love of friends, considered in itself, is more ardent and better than the love of one’s enemy” (2a2ae. 27, 7).
Our love for another person should be for love of God: “The words of Our Lord must be taken in their strict sense: because the love of one’s friends is not meritorious in God’s sight when we love them merely because they are our friends: and this would seem to be the case when we love our friends in such a way that we love not our enemies. On the other hand the love of our friends is meritorious, if we love them for God’s sake, and not merely because they are our friends” (2a2ae. 27, 7, ad 1).
Thomas recalls the words of the First Letter of John: “He that . . . hates his brother, is in darkness” (1 Jn. 2:9). Thomas asserts: “Now spiritual darkness is sin. Therefore there cannot be hatred of one’s neighbor without sin” (2a2ae. 34, 3).
Thomas comments: “Hatred is opposed to love; so that hatred of a thing is evil according as the love of that thing is good. Now love is due to our neighbor in respect of what he holds from God, that is in respect of nature and grace, but not in respect of what he has of himself and from the devil, that is, in respect of sin and lack of justice” (2a2ae. 34, 3).
According to Thomas, we can hate the sin of our brother: “It is lawful to hate the sin in one’s brother, and whatever pertains to the defect of Divine justice, but we cannot hate our brother’s nature and grace without sin. Now it is part of our love for our brother that we hate the fault and the lack of good in him, since desire for another’s good is equivalent to hatred of his evil. Consequently the hatred of one’s brother, if we consider it simply, is always sinful” (2a2ae. 34, 3).
Thomas responds to Jesus’ words that we should “hate” our parents: “By the commandment of God (Ex. 20:12) we must honor our parents—as united to us in nature and kinship. But we must hate them in so far as they prove an obstacle to our attaining the perfection of Divine justice” (2a2ae. 34, 3, ad 1).
God doesn’t hate a person’s nature: “God hates the sin which is in the detractor, not his nature: so that we can hate detractors without committing a sin (2a2ae. 34, 3, ad 2).
A practical form of love of our enemies is praying for them, as Jesus has taught: “To pray for another is an act of charity. Wherefore we are bound to pray for our enemies in the same manner as we are bound to love them. We are bound to love our enemies, namely, that we must love in them their nature, not their sin. and that to love our enemies in general is a matter of precept, while to love them in the individual is not a matter of precept, except in the preparedness of the mind, so that a man must be prepared to love his enemy even in the individual and to help him in a case of necessity, or if his enemy should beg his forgiveness. But to love one’s enemies absolutely in the individual, and to assist them, is an act of perfection” (2a2ae, 83, 8).
“In like manner it is a matter of obligation that we should not exclude our enemies from the general prayers which we offer up for others: but it is a matter of perfection, and not of obligation, to pray for them individually, except in certain special cases” (2a2ae, 83, 8).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. References to Thomas have been taken from various questions and articles of the “second part of the second part” of the Summa. If the passage is found in a response to an objection that Thomas has introduced in the first part of the article, the Latin word “ad,” meaning “to,” is added with the number of the objection.