Loving Our Enemies

Fr. Wilmar Zabala

22 February 2004


Like most cradle Catholics, Lent is always a special time for me. And it’s usually a spiritually beneficial time, because its penitential nature forces me to look at myself, recognize my limitations and failures, repent and ask for forgiveness, and, of course, promise myself to be a better Catholic. As you know, Lent starts this week, on Ash Wednesday. So, I have recently started thinking of the things to “give up” for Lent.

“I will give up eating junk food and eat more healthy food.”

I recently saw a classmate from the seminary for the first time since we were ordained, and the very first words that came out of his mouth when he saw me made me conscious about my health. He said, pinching my cheeks, “You’re fat. Is this what parish life does to a newly-ordained priest.” He bobbled his head, as if “yes” would be my answer.

“And occasional headache,” I managed to speak.

“I will give up eating junk food and eat more healthy food.”

“I will give up watching Judge Judy and spend more time improving my Sunday homilies.”

“I will give up going to the restaurants to eat and learn how to cook.”

My reflection on today’s gospel reading and my preparation for this homily immediately stopped me from further thinking of any more trivial Lenten fasting. You see, before I even have a chance to tell our good Lord what my Lenten resolutions are this year, he presents a proposal that far surpasses any penance I might do. Giving up junk food, giving up Judge Judy Show, giving up going to the restaurants, eating more healthy food, spending more time improving my Sunday homilies, learning how to cook — as good as these resolutions are — they pale when placed next to Jesus’ demanding commands in today’s gospel:

“Love your enemies”

“Do good to those who hate you”

“Bless those who curse you”

“Pray for those who mistreat you”

“Give to everyone who asks of you”

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”

“Stop judging”

“Stop condemning”


As I repeatedly read these words, I found myself murmuring like those disciples in the Scriptures who told Jesus, “Your commandments are hard to accept.”

I’ll be the first one to admit that these moral teachings are indeed extremely difficult to carry out. Loving an enemy is so completely counter-cultural. We were told: “Don’t give an inch!” “Hit them where it hurts!” Many of us are convinced that the only way to get ahead was to get there first, and the only way to survive was to assume a defensive stance. Yes, we are brought up and taught to avoid an enemy, to fear an enemy, to be prepared to defend ourselves from an enemy even to the point of killing an enemy before that enemy has a chance to kill us. But to love your enemies? How impractical, how impossible that is!

Not really, because our First Reading gives us an example of such extraordinary conduct in the person of David. David had been a threat to Saul’s rule, so the king gathered a vast army and set out to kill him. When David had an opportunity to strike the king and save himself, he acknowledged that Saul was God’s chosen king, and therefore he spared his life. This, my friends, is a very striking example of respect and forgiveness.

Our Second Reading gives us more insight on this. In his unique theological approach, Paul contrast Adam, who was formed from the earth, and Christ, who came from heaven. The first was “a living being,” the second is a “life-giving spirit.” As always, Paul’s real concern is genuine Christian behavior. He argues that, though we were born in the image of the first man, by Baptism we bear the image of the second. In other words, while we may be tempted to live according to society’s version of the Golden Rule, which is “do unto others before they can do unto you,” we are called first and foremost to live the Gospel version, “do to others as you would have them do to you.”

As you think of your Lenten resolutions, I suggest that you have today’s gospel reading in mind, because, really, Jesus is telling us that it is better to lose hate than weight during Lent. It is good to decrease our intake of calories in order to increase our awareness of and solidarity with the millions of people throughout the world who never have enough to eat, who go to bed hungry every night, who die from lack of proper nourishment. At the same time it is good to fast and abstain from hateful thoughts, words and deeds, from anger, resentment and revenge, from bullying and belittling, from temper tantrums, and from giving another that devastating “silent treatment.”

“Doing to others as you would have them do to you” does not require that we allow others to take advantage of us. This gospel rule simply wants us to say to one another, “Hey, I can outdo your violence toward me with my willingness to give freely much more that you sought to take from me,” or, in the words of my spiritual director, “win over your opponent by kindness,” “take the moral high road,” “shame your enemy by your superior goodness,” “deflect hostility or prevent further abuse by offering no resistance,” “rise above pettiness,” or “demonstrate a Christ-like character as a Christian witness.”

Here then is Jesus’ genuine Lenten agenda. What a wonderful, powerful, life-changing Lent this will be when we take Jesus’ demanding commands as our Lenten resolutions. Our weary world is so full of hatred, violence, discrimination and killing that it seems everybody is an enemy to somebody. There is such a need for forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. May our reception of the Body and Blood of Christ this morning inspire us to join our voices with St. Francis of Assisi and make his prayer our own: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me bring your love; where there is injury, your pardon; where there’s doubt, true faith in you.”

Copyright 2007 by Fr. Wilmar Zabala