“Love your enemy” is a one of Jesus’ commands that may not seem like it has much application to us in our everyday lives. How many Taliban have you encountered today? For most of us in the United States, we don’t have real enemies like that.
At first blush, the tendency for most of us may be to gloss over the command to “love your enemy” because we don’t have “enemies”; however, I don’t think that Jesus gave us that option.
Jesus said in the same context, “If you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?” Even the unbelievers do that.
The truth is that we gravitate toward people and people groups that are like us.
We see it in all facets of life. The tendency to associate with our “own kind” begins early in life. On the playground, kids form cliques. The classic “no girls allowed” sign under the tree-house is just one example. Athletes stick together; nerds stick together; fraternities and sororities stick together; Italians, Irish, Mexicans – people make up the current immigrant wave – stick together. The poor associate with the poor, and the rich associate with the rich.
Racial divides are just an extreme example. We all have our “own people”, the people with whom we identity. We gravitate toward people “like us.”
We don’t necessarily call others our enemies, but we sometimes act as if they are. The more the mentality is “us against them” the more like enemies others become. It could be Republicans and Democrats, unions and company management, people who love science and people who love religion, Muslims and Christians, Americans and Russians, haves and have-nots and the in-crowd and the “others”.
All of these classifications result from commonalities and differences, and they become reason that people separate themselves from other people. They become reasons that people do not associate with other people. They become lines in the sand, sometimes, that define friend and foe.
The application to everyday life is found in the contrast between enemies and our “own people”.
In that sense, Jesus suggested an expanded meaning of “enemies” just as he expanded the idea of fulfilling the law: it is not enough to fulfill most of the commands of the law; your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. It is not enough to refrain from murdering people; a person who is angry with or curses a brother might as well be guilty of murder. It is not enough to refrain from committing adultery; anyone who looks with lust on a woman has committed adultery in his heart.
Enemies, then, are not just the Taliban, terrorists, rapists. Enemies are the people with whom we do not associate because they are different. Enemies are people with whom we have had differences. Enemies include anyone with whom we maintain our distance. Enemies are persons we treat as something other than neighbors.
At different times, an enemy could be a spouse, a child, a parent, a next door neighbor, a co-worker, a fellow believer. An enemy could be anyone we intentionally ignore or fail to acknowledge.
Enemies include anyone with whom we have differences, and we are called to love them. Love breaks down the differences. Love makes enemies friends. And if enemies do not respond to love, we are to love them nevertheless.
“Love your enemies” comes from the Sermon on the Mount. I generally picture Jesus standing on a mountain addressing a multitude in this passage. Indeed, there is reference to “the crowds” in Matthew 5:1, but it says Jesus “went up on a mountainside and sat down” and “His disciples came to him.” In other words, Jesus was not speaking to the crowds in the Sermon on the Mount; he was speaking to the disciples.
The entire presentation on loving your enemies was introduced by these statements: “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” Jesus was speaking to his followers, then, who are to be salt and light in the world by loving their enemies and breaking down those barriers between people.
That does not mean that we need to identify with and be like our enemies. We are to be in the World, but not of the World. Jesus showed us how to do it. He associated with tax collectors, harlots and sinners. He greeted them. He ignored the barriers. He interacted with them. He ate with them. He loved them. They were drawn to Jesus in turn.
The Good Samaritan went out of way to help the injured Jew on the road. It is not coincidence that Jesus chose a Samaritan to help the Jew in that parable. Jews saw Samaritans as inferior and did not associate with Samaritans. Jesus showed us that we should ignore those barriers, even if it means going out of our way to do it. When we do that, we make enemies our neighbors, and we become salt and light to the World.
This post was not originally inspired not by the Sermon on the Mount. I have been “chewing” for days on a pretty remarkable story of a black musician who broke the race barrier by going out of his way to befriend a Ku Klux Klansmen and, in the process, inspired many to abandon their racist ways. (You can read the story here.) I don’t know if this man is a Christian, but he is certainly like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable who went out of his way to help the injured Jew on the side of the road.
Racism (hatred) is injury to the human soul. It disables the one who hates. The racist sees himself as superior, and creates a barrier, draws a line in the sand, and makes others enemies.
What this black musician did is what I could see Jesus doing. He did not let the hatred of the racist incite hatred in his own heart. He confronted the hatred and the racist with love demonstrated by reaching out, breaking down the barrier and befriending an enemy. The salt and light of this action changed the Klansmen, and it is the kind of salt and light that changes the world. That is love.