WEEKLY REFLECTIONS | Jesus’ ethics of love


“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends; hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Matthew 5:43-44

Love Commandment

February is widely regarded as love month.  It is a time for us to celebrate and reflect on what love means in our lives and in our life together.  It is interesting to note that when Jesus Christ our Lord was asked about the most important commandment, he did not mention the Ten Commandments (cf. Ex. 20; Dt. 5) but rather the love commandments:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Dt. 6) and “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

Jesus’ ethics can be summarized in these double love-commandments (cf. Mk. 12:28-31).  These commandments are underlined and radicalized even more by the command to love one’s enemy (Mt. 5:43-48), and not to retaliate but “turn even the other cheek” to the offender (Mt. 5:38-42).

The double commandment to love God and one’s neighbor is central for Jesus’ ethics.  These two commandments are interpreted as summarizing the entire Law/Torah (cf. Lk. 10:26ff.), even the entire Old Testament (cf. Mt. 22:37-40).  The Gospels can be understood as a continuous commentary on the nature of Jesus’ interpretation of these double commandments.  The parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk. 10), which is introduced with these double commandments, shows that love does not only refer to a feeling or emotion, but implies concrete deeds of love and mercy.

Loving one’s Enemy

The command to love one’s neighbor is radicalized by Jesus’ command to love not only one’s neighbor, but also to love one’s enemy (cf. Mt. 5:43-48).  Take note that there is no commandment in the Old Testament that says one should hate one’s enemy, though it is mentioned here.   Jesus’ argument is that we are to love our enemies because God loves them: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45).  God is the God of the good and the evil.  God is our God and the God of our enemies, too.

Because God is the Father of all, we shall live and treat one another as his children.  Therefore, we shall love our enemies.  This seems to be impossible – probably it is impossible without God.  But it becomes possible because God is the God of all, even of our enemies.  In this way, we are enabled to love them and to overcome hatred and enmity.  This is the thrust of the command to love one’s enemy: to overcome hatred and enmity.  It is not to overcome the enemy, but rather to change him.

Loving one’s enemy does not leave the enemy the enemy as he is; it wants him not to go on being an enemy forever, but to change him.  By contrast, hatred does not seek the end of enmity.  It needs a picture of the enemy and must constantly keep it in full view; it wants the enemy as an enemy – but in order finally to make an end of him.

Seeking to End Enmity not the Enemy

Related to the command to love one’s neighbor is another saying of Jesus: “Do not resist an evil person.  If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn him the other also.  And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Mt. 5:39 ff.).  This is not a call to accept injustice and to be merely passive and tolerant.  Jesus is requiring activity from the disciple, but a quite unique form of activity: offering to the one who hits you the other cheek, giving your garment to the person who robs you of your cloak.

Here the one who is hit and robbed takes the initiative.  This give rise to perplexing, indeed absurd situation, which should make the aggressor ask: should I go on hitting?  The other person is defenseless!  Should I really rob?  The other person is in fact naked!  It is not a matter of accepting circumstances passively, but of changing the situation. What is asked for here is the practice of love of enemy which seeks an end of enmity, but not the end of the enemy.

In the World but not of the World    

It should be noticed that the two examples of Jesus both refer to small cases, most likely to take place in the same social class:  Who would rob the tunic of one of the disciples?  Certainly, it is not rich people.  This shows that Jesus’ command cannot be related to every situation of injustice.   It is in this sense that his command is often misused.

The commandment to love one’s enemy and to overcome hatred and enmity point to an important aspect of Jesus’ ethics:  Jesus’ ethics is not an ethics for a closed community, which lives separated from the world, and which has hardly any contact to other people.  Jesus and his disciples did not withdraw to a remote place in order to live out their visions of a different way of life and community undisturbed.

In the same way, we are called today to live as Christians in the world, not separated from the world, not in social isolation, not only inside our Christian group.  As the lives of Jesus and his disciples show, such a life – different but not separated from the world – is not free from conflicts.  There might be conflict and enmity.   We are not to escape from these, but to overcome these is the center of Jesus’ commandment to love even our enemies. # nordis.net


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