Asking who is your enemy may seem like a strange way to begin a blog article about loving your neighbor, but bear with me. My question is inspired by a different, but related, question. My question is inspired by the question asked by an expert in the law many years ago: “Who is my neighbor?”
This question followed a theological dialogue between the expert in the law and Jesus in which the expert in the law sought to test Jesus. (See Luke 10:25-29) As Jesus often did, though, the test put to Jesus turned into a challenge to the so-called expert.
The expert in the law asked Jesus the loaded question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered with his own question, “What is written in the law?… How do you read it?” Not to be shown up, the expert in the law answered:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (quoting Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18)
The expert in the law was probably looking for some debate, but Jesus wasn’t interested in debate. Instead, he simply concluded, “You have answered correctly…. Do this and you will live.”
The expert in the law had the tables turned on him. He wanted to test Jesus, but Jesus put the test to him, and now he was in defensive mode. He might said, “Wait a minute!” And then the question followed that leads me to my question, “Who is my neighbor?” If we have to love our neighbors, and if loving our neighbors is the measure for inheriting eternal life, we better know who are neighbors are!
But there is a back story here that leads from the one question to the other question. Apparently, the First Century Palestine Jews had interpreted Leviticus 19:18 to mean, “Love your neighbor; hate your enemy.”
How do we know that? It isn’t found anywhere in Scripture, but Jesus quoted the statement in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy….’” Ah, and now you know where I am going, because Jesus followed with this:
“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 causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 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? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
Lest there be any doubt who my neighbor, Jesus stretched it so far that love must reach all the way from my friends to my enemies and everyone in between!
And that leads me to the question, “Whos is my enemy that I must love?”
When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:30-37) In the story, a man is beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite (think a pastor and your typical religious Christian) going down the same road, skipped over to the other side of the road and passed on by. A Samaritan, though, came to the man’s rescue, bandaged his wounds, carried him to an inn and paid for a room where he could recover from the ordeal.
Now Jesus turned the question back on the expert in the law, “Who was the neighbor to the man who was beaten on the road?”
There was only one choice: the despised Samaritan. Samaritans were second class citizens in First Century Palestine. They had Jewish ancestry, but they were of mixed blood and deviated from Jewish tradition and custom. Samaritans weren’t enemies. They were viewed with disdain.
As a result of this dialogue, we know that our neighbors include those people we view as inferior to us, but who are our enemies?
Maybe the photo at the top of this article is a clue. It shows the reaction of a tribe of previously unknown people in the Amazon forest to the discovery of their village deep in the forest by a modern plane. They came out with spears in hand, ready to fight off the strange intruders.
Their reaction is a lot like the way we react to people we don’t know. We have progressed in the manners of a civilized society beyond carrying spears, but we often bristle the same way when people we don’t know catch us off guard and in the face of confrontations and slights (or perceived slights) from people we don’t understand.
To be perfectly honest, our tendency to be on guard isn’t limited to strangers. Sometimes, the worst “offenders” are right in our own families. Husbands and wives take offense at things each of them says or does. Brothers and sisters, children and parents, next door neighbors and co-workers all pose threats (or perceived) threats to us that can cause us to bring out our emotional spears and shields.
Are they enemies? Or are they neighbors?
It doesn’t matter. Jesus left no one out of the equation. We are to love our neighbors, and we are to love even our enemies. It turns out that they are the same question. Who is our neighbor? Who is our enemy? Everyone!
Jesus calls us simply to love everyone. There are no exceptions.
Just as Jesus expanded the meaning of “neighbor” in the parable of the good Samaritan, we, perhaps, should consider an expanded meaning of the word “enemy”. When we think of enemies, we tend to think of evil people intent on doing us harm, like ISIS, or a robber sneaking in our homes or a rapist. We struggle with loving anyone like that.
But, I think that we may fail to understand what Jesus was really getting at when we take it that far. These are examples that most of us will never face, and wrestling with those “ultimate” kinds of enemies to the exclusion of more mundane kinds of “enemies” might just cause us to miss some very practical application of the call to love our enemies.
Any time we are threatened by someone who don’t bursting into our personal space, any time we feel slighted by something a loved one or friend says or does to us, any time we are challenged or opposed in any way by another person, we need to remember that we are called to love our enemies.
And Jesus didn’t leave it to our imagination how we are to love people. He showed us exactly how to love. “While we were still sinners [enemies who were opposed to God], Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) He laid down His own life for us. He didn’t consider Himself more important than us. He emptied Himself of all His privilege and position, and He lived and died for us.
We love people by putting our spears down. We love people by dying to that self that wants to bristle. We love people by choosing to put others first, even when they cut in line. We love people by keeping no record of wrongs, by not demanding an eye for an eye, by not allowing our feelings of hurt to shut other people out of our lives.
Our neighbors – and our enemies – are all around us. .