In the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, and the twenty-second chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus speaking of the greatest and second-greatest commandments. The greatest commandment, of course, is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. Luke’s rendering includes all your strength.
The second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as our self. On this and on the greatest commandment hangs all the law and the prophets.
The Jewish teachers of Jesus’ day took the word of God and applied their own interpretive filter to it, defining “neighbor” as their own nation, their own race, their own religious affiliates, their friends. It is easy to love people in these categories. It is easy to love people who are just like me, because . . . they are just like me.
Just as we are often wont to do, the Jewish teachers made inferences from what God said, reading further into it to determine truths (errant conclusions) from what God didn’t say. If God said we should love our neighbor (nation, race, religion, friends) then, by extension, he must also be saying that we should hate our enemies.
Love Your Enemy
If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him. – Exodus 23:4-5, ESV
You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land. – Deuteronomy 23:7, ESV
When Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us, we are to believe he means it. Jesus is the one who set the example, loving us while we were hostile toward him. Infused with that grace, and the indwelling Holy Spirit of God, we are called and empowered to jettison the profane bitterness that boils in our stomachs.
Where there is a tendency to curse, we bless. Where there is an inclination to hate, we love. Where there are lies, we speak truth. Where there is ridicule, we show honor. Where there is bitterness, we grant forgiveness.
Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. – 1 Peter 3:9, ESV
What Jesus is calling us to is action beyond words – action beyond emotion. In Matthew 5:44, Jesus tells us to καλως ποιειτε – to perform nobly, rightly, honorably on their behalf. This goes far beyond just “feeling better” toward them. We are actively engaging on their behalf, for their good. In speaking of enemies, Archbishop Cranmer said, “Be ready to do them all the real kindness you can, and glad of an opportunity to do it.”
The cliché today holds that actions speak louder than words, and that is true in this case as well. We can speak lovingly to or about our persecutors, but to actually perform nobly on their behalf, well, that’s a whole no level of bizarre! When the army of Jesus begins to take this seriously, and engages the world at this level, it will blow their minds, because the world does not behave in this way, and cannot even comprehend such behavior.
We are to “pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.” It is no great shock to Christ followers that we are hated and persecuted. Jesus was very clear that this would happen. What we need to see now is that such persecutions present us with an opportunity to follow in Christ’s steps by praying for our persecutors.Following in the footsteps of Jesus we pray that God will forgive them, that they suffer no ill-will for their foul treatment of us. We pray on their behalf, and ours, that God will allow us to be at peace with our enemies.
Having this attitude toward our enemies, we project the character of God, who causes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). We become τελεις (telios). The idea behind telios is not one of sinless perfection, but rather completeness, or maturity.
These calls from Jesus are deeply challenging, but they are fully in line with what we have experienced in our own coming to Christ. In Christ, our heavenly Father loved us, his enemies, and cleared the way for us to be his children. In similar fashion, we offer forgiveness and friendship to our enemies.