Love Your Enemies

We live in a world of enemies. There is constant conflict. What does it look like to follow Jesus in a world like that?

In Jesus’s time on Earth, there was a lot of conflict. When He taught the Sermon on the Mount, Israel was under Roman oppression. Before Rome, it was Greece, Persia, Babylon, and Assyria. It had been thousands of years since Israel was an independent kingdom, and they had many enemies. So, when Jesus taught this, he was saying something explosive.

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

This statement was an earthquake, and the world has never been the same since. No other religion or empire or culture said anything like this. It was radical.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” It had been taught by religious leaders as a misinterpretation of Leviticus 19 to say that people should only love their neighbors and hate their enemies.

We have enemies too. Sometimes we don’t think of them as enemies, but it looks different today. It is a little more subtle for us. To explore this, let’s take a look at David Finch’s example of The Enemy-Making Machine.

The Enemy-Making Machine

  1. We define ourselves via a position.
  2. In doing so, we define ourselves against someone (an “other”) via our position.
  3. Our motivations and desires align with our position.
  4. We defend our position at all costs and feel justified in doing so.

Doesn’t this look like the culture we live in today? It is all based on fear. This is our version of “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” We are taught to hate people who are different from us. From sports teams to political parties to other generations. Who have you been taught to hate? Who has been taught to hate you? We all have enemies.

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Love is not a helpful word in the English language. You can love pizza and love hiking and love your children, and those all mean very different things. We use “love” primarily to describe a feeling that happens to us. That is not what Jesus is talking about here. Jesus is not saying to feel warm and fuzzy about people who are hostile to you.

The Greek word that Jesus uses for love is “agapao” which means to sacrificially seek the good of another. Luke 6:27 “ But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Jesus equates loving your enemies with doing good to them. This is what praying for those who persecute us connects to. You are coming before God to ask for blessings for your enemies.

Why do this? Jesus goes on to explain in Matthew 5:44, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” He says to do this so that you bear resemblance to your Heavenly Father.

He continues in Matthew 5:45, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This verse tells us two very important truths. First, God blesses the good and the evil. Rain and sun were tangible blessings that mattered a lot to the agricultural society Jesus spoke to. Second, It is not always obvious to us who is good and who is evil. You cannot know if someone is good or evil based on what you can see. This theology is fully deconstructed in the book of Job. It seems obvious to us which is which because we have been taught to divide ourselves into good and evil.

The point Jesus is making is that we cannot be confident we always know which is which because when it comes to good and evil, we all have both within us.

When we recognize this, we can begin to have compassion for the people we view as our enemies. You cannot truly love someone you look down on. When we categorize people based on our limited understanding of them, we dehumanize them. We strip away all the complexity of somebody who has beauty and brokenness in them and is made in the image of God just to focus on one small piece of who we think they are. We also dehumanize ourselves. Hate is corrosive to the soul.

“I am resolved that I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.” –Booker T. Washington

The way of Jesus is to love our enemies.

Matthew 5:46-47 “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” If you love people who love you, you are acting no differently than anyone else, including your enemies.

Responding to love with evil is the way of the wicked.
Responding to love with love is the way of the world.
Responding to evil with love is the way of Jesus.

Matthew 5:48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This seems so unattainable at face value, but the word Jesus uses for “perfect” also means complete or mature, and He is speaking in the context of love. Jesus is saying that the call to us as followers is to pursue love and that the way to be mature in love is to love your enemies. There is no self-interest in loving your enemies because there is nothing to gain. This command is anchored in the nature & character of God.

Nowhere do we see God like this as clearly as we do at the cross. Romans 5:8 & 10 “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.. . . 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” Jesus was abandoned, humiliated, beaten, tormented, and brought to the point of His last words. Then, He asked God to forgive His enemies.

Seeking to love others is the only way. The only way for your heart to become a heart that pursues love for your enemies is for the love of God to be so deeply rooted inside of you because of what He did for you when you were His enemy.

This leaves us without an excuse. There is no one in your life that is so unlovable that you cannot move towards loving them.

Challenge yourself this week: write down the name of a person you consider an enemy and place it somewhere you know you will see it every day. Spend a few minutes each day praying genuinely for God to bless them. Not for your perception of justice or retribution or any other self-serving agenda. Pray for blessings for them.