We’ve heard Jesus say “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That sounds safe enough, even though we regularly confess we haven’t done it. But love your enemies? That’s not safe. In fact, it sounds downright foolish. But that’s what he said: love your enemies.
And he’s not just talking about enemies you might hear about, or read about on your newsfeed. He’s talking about people close enough to cause you harm, who may have already caused you harm, not just emotional harm but physical harm.He means somebody you might run into today who hates you or curses you or abuses you or takes things away from you or even physically assaults you. This is the person he insist you should love.
Does that sound impossible? Maybe it is, at least for us. According to Luke, Jesus says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” But in Matthew’s version he says, “Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Wonderful. If any of us could be as merciful as God, I guess we would be perfect. But I know I can’t do that, and if you told me you could, I wouldn’t believe you. It sounds impossible.
But impossible or not, surely Jesus didn’t mean for us to throw our hands in the air and give up, did he? Maybe it helps to realize that there are some things he’s not expecting us to do.
He’s not expecting us to work up a warm, fuzzy feeling for people who hate us enough to harm us. The kind of love Jesus is talking about starts not with how we feel toward others but with how we treat them. Do them good, pray for their well being, don’t retaliate, share what you have with them, in a word, “Do to [them] as you would have them do to you.” Mind you, if you treat them that way, no matter how reluctantly you start out, in time you will probably start to feel more kindly towards them. It’s an example of “fake it till you make it.“ But the focus is still more on doing than on feeling. “Do to [them] as you would have them do to you.”
Jesus doesn’t expect you to be a doormat, either. Let’s face it—in the past this passage has been shamefully used to to keep vulnerable people in abusive relationships. Wives were counseled to stay with their husbands even when they were repeatedly beaten. Some Christian leaders still teach that. But in our Church we counsel that confronting abuse is actually more loving than letting it continue. Sure, “pray for those who abuse you.” But get out of a situation where it can keep happening—that is, if you can get out.
Of course, there are situations where you can’t get out, and it seems that Jesus has those particularly in mind. When your whole country and all the countries around you are occupied by the Romans, where could you possibly move? When most people don’t even ask if it’s OK that you’re a slave, what can you do about it? You know that every violent rebellion you’ve ever heard about only ended in disaster for the rebels. And when there’s no Chapter 11 to protect you from ruthless creditors, you’re a left at their mercy.
Even so, even when you’re in an unfair situation you can’t escape, you don’t have to be a doormat—even when you love your enemies.
That bit about turning the other cheek, scholars tell us these days, is a nonviolent act of defiance. The one who strikes you is claiming to be your social superior (maybe a Roman, maybe your master). It takes a little explaining, but turning the other cheek is a way of facing the perpetrator as an equal, not an inferior. Instead of responding with more violence, or with subservience, you claim dignity as God’s beloved offspring.
And when you can’t pay your debts, a wealthy creditor can take your coat as collateral. But if you give not just your coat but your underwear (that’s what “shirt” means), according to social customs of the time that would actually shame the creditor more than the debtor.
So sometimes loving your enemy means making them face the harm they’re doing, but without adding more violence to an already violent situation. People call it Jesus’ third way—standing for our equal dignity before God without resorting to violence. (More here.)
So, don’t be a doormat, but still, love your enemies. Do them good, though they may not like the good that you do them. When we do that, Jesus says, we are doing what God does. Because it’s God whose very nature is to love God’s enemies.
And isn’t that a good thing? Aren’t we glad that God loves enemies? After all, don’t we regularly confess that we are among God’s enemies? We say that we sin against God in thought, word, and deed. And we do. We withhold love from God, from others—and even from ourselves.
Yes, do notice, we withhold love even from ourselves. I said a few moments ago that the enemies Jesus is talking about are people near at hand. And one of those people near at hand is you. The more we get to know ourselves, the more honest we are about ourselves, the more we come to see that we are our own enemies. You have probably heard it said that what we abhor in other people reflects what we abhor in ourselves. So if we hate others as our enemies, when we curse them, we are not just hating or cursing them. We are hating and cursing ourselves along with them.
But the other side of that coin is that what we are starting to love in others reflects what we are starting to love in ourselves. It works both ways. If we do good to others who wish us harm, if we bless them instead of cursing them, we do good to ourselves, we bless ourselves.
Thank God! It is, after all, God who does good to us and blesses us first. Through Jesus’ life, death and risen life God is saying to us, “No matter how hard you try to be my enemy, you can’t. I have no enemies. You are my beloved, even at your most hateful. Now go and do likewise.”
“I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Why? Because this is what God does for us. How? God is already nudging us in that direction. We might as well stop pushing back and let it happen.