Jesus often spoke about the obligation of fraternal charity. He took us beyond the prohibition of killing or even striking a brother. He said that we must not become angry with our brother, nor show our bitterness toward him by injuring him in any way.
If we have a dispute, we must be easily reconciled, must not seek to bring our disagreement to an end by taking it before a judge, nor even seek a mediator to heal our division. For Christ is the mediator of our reconciliation, and it is the spirit of his charity and grace that should animate us. We ought to be willing to bend, so that, together with our brother, we can be mutually accommodating.
He said that if we come to sense some bitterness in our brother’s heart, we must take care to appease him and to prefer reconciliation to sacrifice. But he pushes the obligation still further and uproots the spirit of vengeance. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (cf. Exod. 21:24). This is what was permitted of old, and it seems to be a certain kind of justice. But Jesus does not allow a Christian either to do it himself or to seek satisfaction in this way. If the public authority punishes crimes, the Christian does not prevent it; he respects public order. But for his part, far from avenging himself upon the one who strikes him, he turns the other cheek; he would rather give his coat to the one who would steal his shirt than to seek legal redress for such a small matter and thus burden his mind with legalism and resentment (Matt. 5:39-40). He will more willingly walk two miles with someone who would force him to walk one than seek justice for himself or even dream of causing harm to one who had hurt him. The tranquillity of his heart is more dear to him than the possession of anything that injustice could take away, and if a breach of charity were required to recover something that had been taken away from him, he would not want it at any price.
O gospel, how pure you are! O teaching of Christ, how worthy of our love you are! Yet alas, how poorly we Christians respond to it, and how little worthy are we of so lovely a name!
“Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse” — as is so often done — “him who would borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). Do what you can to care for those who suffer: be beneficent. The sum of the world’s riches does not equal the price of these two virtues, nor the reward that they will gain us.
Here then are the three degrees of charity toward our enemies: to love them, to do good to them, and to pray for them. The first is the source of the second: if we love, we give. The last is the one that we think is the easiest to do, but is in fact the most difficult, because it is the one that we must do in relation to God. Nothing should be more sincere, nothing more heartfelt, nothing truer than what we present to the one who sees all, even into the depths of our heart.
Let us examine these three degrees: to love, to do good, and to pray. What is it to “love those who love you”? “Do not even the tax collectors do the same? . . . Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matt. 5:46-47). It is not for nothing that you are offered an eternal inheritance and an unchanging happiness: it is not to leave you indifferent, or worse than pagans.
And You Will Be Forgiven
There is good reason to be astonished that men should sin so boldly in the sight of Heaven and earth and show so little fear of the most high God. Yet it is a much greater cause of astonishment that while we multiply our iniquities beyond the sands of the sea and have so great a need for God to be kind and indulgent, we are nevertheless so demanding ourselves. Such indignity and such injustice! We want God to suffer everything from us, and we are not able to suffer anything from anyone.
We exaggerate beyond measure the faults committed against us; worms that we are, we take the slightest pressure exerted on us to be an enormous attack. Meanwhile, we count as nothing what we undertake proudly against the sovereign majesty of God and the rights of his empire!
Blind and wretched mortals: will we always be so sensitive and delicate? Will we never open our eyes to the truth? Will we never understand that the one who does injury to us is always much more to be pitied than are we who receive the injury? That he pierces his own heart while merely grazing our skin, and that, in the end, our enemies are mad; wanting to make us drink all the venom of their hatred, they do so first themselves, swallowing the very poison they have prepared? Since those who do evil to us are unhealthy in mind, why do we embitter them by our cruel vengeance? Why do we not rather seek to bring them back to reason by our patience and mildness?
Yet we are far removed from these charitable dispositions. Far from making the effort at self-command that would enable us to endure an injury, we think that we are lowering ourselves if we do not take pride in being delicate in points of honor. We even think well of ourselves for our extreme sensitivity. And we carry our resentment beyond all measure, either exercising a pitiless vengeance upon those who anger us, or consoling ourselves with burdening them by making a show of our patience or by feigning tranquillity in order to insult them all the more.
We are such cruel enemies and implacable avengers that we even turn patience and pity into the weapons of our anger! Yet these are not our worst excesses, for we do not always wait for actual injuries in order to be irritated. Shadows, jealousies, and hidden opposition suffice to arm us against one another. We often come to hate for the sole reason of believing ourselves to be hated. Anxiety seizes us. We fear injuries before they come, and, carried off by our suspicions, we avenge what has not yet taken place.
All this we must stop. We must take care how we speak about our neighbor. That little word, the dart casually tossed, the malicious tale that gives rise to so many straying thoughts by its affected obliqueness: none of these will fall to the earth. “No secret word is without result” (Wisd. 1:11). We must take care of what we say and bridle our malicious anger and unruly tongues. For there is a God in Heaven who has told us that he will demand a reckoning of our “careless words” (Matt. 12:36): what recompense shall he exact for those which are harmful and malicious? We ought, therefore, to revere his eyes and his presence. Let us ponder the fact that he will judge us as we have judged our neighbor. If we pardon, he will pardon us; if we avenge our injuries, we will “suffer vengeance from the Lord” (Sir. 28:1). His vengeance will pursue us in life and in death, and we will have no rest either in this world or the next.
Let us, then, not wait until the hour of death to pardon our enemies, but let us practice what St. Paul taught: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26). The apostle’s tender, paternal heart could not comprehend that a Christian — a child of peace — could sleep peacefully with a heart that was ulcerated and embittered toward his brother, nor that he could enjoy any rest while willing evil to his neighbor, whose interests God has taken in hand. The light is waning, the sun sets: the apostle gives you no time to waste. You have barely enough time to obey him.
We must no longer delay this necessary work. Let us hasten to hand our resentment over to God. If we reserve all of the business of our salvation until the day of our death, it will be far too busy a day. Let us begin now to prepare for the graces that we will need then, and, by pardoning those who hurt us, let us assure ourselves of the eternal mercy of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Editor’s note: This article is from two chapters in Bp. Bossuet’s Meditations for Lent, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.