Few passages in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount cry out for explanation or exemption as these verses about love and enemies. I mean, His saying is famous: “Whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In a world such as ours where violence and retribution abound, we’d be happy if just “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was more widely observed! But turn the other cheek? It’s naïve. Jesus’ words cry out for some exceptions!
And then there’s this whole business of loving our enemies. How literally are we supposed to take His words? We all know what enemies do, personal enemies, terrorists, and the like?! Or maybe there’s some kind of built-in exception here. Who is my enemy?
Over in the Gospel according to St. Luke Jesus has a conversation with a zealous young man who is keen on keeping the commandments well. Jesus hits him with these words, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But the young man wants an exception. He asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered his question with a story…the parable of the Good Samaritan. So perhaps a story would answer our question: Who is my enemy?
In the world of The Lord of the Rings, created by J. R. R. Tolkien, there are plenty of stories to answer our question. According to the warrior ethic of the ancient Norse, from which Tolkien drew some inspiration, the offering of pardon to enemies was unthinkable. They must be utterly defeated. For Tolkien the Christian, love is essential to Jesus’ words, and should be understood in terms of mercy and pity.
One of the most poignant scenes in The Lord of the Rings occurs with the death of Boromir, one of the fellowship of the Ring. He would seem to be a Simon Peter. In a moment of testing, Boromir breaks fellowship with the others and tries to seize the Ring from Frodo. Frodo is forced to wear the evil ring in order to escape from Boromir, his friend, now an enemy.
But no sooner has Boromir seen the horror he has committed than he also repents of it: What have I done? “Frodo, Frodo!” he called. “Come back! A madness took me, but it has passed.”
But it’s too late. Frodo has fled. But it’s not too late for Boromir’s redemption. He makes good his solitary confession of sin by fighting Orcs until they overcome him. When Aragorn hears the horn of the desperate Boromir, the friends run to him, only to find him dying. Boromir does not boast of his valor in facing death. He admits his sin to Aragorn: “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid.”
Boromir means that he has paid the terrible price of breaking trust with Frodo, becoming his enemy. But Aragorn will not let Boromir die in the conviction that his whole life has been ruined by a momentary act of madness—even though it was prompted, like Simon Peter, by Boromir’s arrogant confidence in his own courage.
And rather than pointing to Boromir’s guilt in betraying Frodo and the fellowship, Aragorn absolves the dying hero: “‘No!’ said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. ‘You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace!’”
But you say, that’s an easy forgiveness. Boromir was heroic, and self-sacrificial. That makes his forgiveness easier! Well, then…consider a despicable enemy…Gollum.
At one point in the story Frodo is outraged that Bilbo had not killed the wicked Gollum when he had the chance. And Frodo has good cause for his fury. In the hobbit’s tale, Gollum was trying to kill Bilbo for the Ring, and had Bilbo not put on the evil thing to escape, there is little doubt that Gollum would have succeeded in murdering Frodo’s kinsman.
A frustrated Frodo wonders aloud why Bilbo should not have given Gollum an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But Gandalf the wizard answers the hafling with a speech echoing Tolkien’s own faith, which lies at the heart of the entire epic.
“What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature” [Frodo declared,] “when he had a chance!”
“Pity?” [replied Gandalf.] “It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that [Bilbo] took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so, with Pity.”
“I am sorry,” said Frodo. “But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.”
“You have not seen him,” Gandalf broke in.
“No, and I don’t want to,” said Frodo. “…Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.”
“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that [end] comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least.” And it’s true, as Gandalf said. Without the treacherous Gollum, the Judas in this story, the whole epic tale would not have ended well.
Even if the question is answered, “Who is my enemy, the one I’m supposed to love as Jesus says?”…there will be no end to the list. But neither will there be any real love. In St. Luke the neighbor question is answered not by Jesus telling that young man what he had to do…but by showing him who he ought to be. So also our enemy question. It’s not a question of what to do with them…but a question of who we are.
Near the end of their weary, epic journey to destroy the Ring, Frodo and the hobbit, Sam, are alone, deep within Mordor, crawling along like insects in a vast wilderness. All their efforts seem to have failed. Even if they somehow manage to succeed in destroying the Ring, there is no likelihood that they will survive, or that anyone will ever hear of their valiant deed.
Yet amid such apparent hopelessness, Sam—the hobbit who has gradually emerged as a figure of great insight—Sam sees a single star shimmering above the dark clouds of Mordor: “The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach…. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even [Frodo’s], ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep and untroubled sleep.”
It was a reminder…like the star of Epiphany. And Sam, Frodo, and the others needed many reminders…not of what they were capable of doing and should do, but of who they were.
These closing verses of chapter 5 in Jesus’ Sermon are not a final command to get out there and do! These verses come as a reminder of what we have been told from the beginning, a reminder of who we are. “Blessed,” said Jesus in the beginning. “Blessed are you.” “Blessed” to be with Him, to share life with Him, death with Him, resurrection with Him. “Blessed are you.”
And what no guideline for distinguishing enemy from friend can ever accomplish, what no book of statutes can outline, as to when to take eye for eye and when to turn the other cheek…what no Law can make us do, Jesus—who in love, mercy, and pity laid down His life for enemy and friend—Jesus says, “Follow Me.” “Follow Me,” He says.
Oh yes…sometimes, following Him…sometimes our faith will turn the other cheek when we should have meted out some justice. And sometimes we will exact our pound of flesh when we really should have turned the other cheek. But still He reminds us…and so we follow…we follow Him…and there is the love.
“We shouldn’t be here at all [Sam said to Frodo], if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say.
“But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t…. We hear about those as just went on—and not all to a good end…. But those…may be the best tales to get landed in!”
And that’s where this Sermon on the Mount lands us…in a great adventure, with many brave things, as the old tales and songs tell us…with a far greater Gandalf who says to us, “Follow Me.” And He is the path…there and back again! “Follow Me!”