Scripture: Matthew 5:43-48
One day, Jesus was among the crowds teaching, and someone asked him a question. “Teacher,” this man said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
The crowds nodded and the man who had asked the question paused for a moment to process this, and then he spoke up again: “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus launched into a story, the story of the Good Samaritan.
On another day, Jesus was among the crowds teaching, and he taught them, “Love your enemies, and pray for those that persecute you.” But this time there was no one who stood up and said, “But teacher, who is my enemy?”
Maybe they thought it was obvious.
But you see, I like to think I’m the kind of person who doesn’t have any enemies.
People may annoy me or make me angry sometimes, but to my knowledge, no one is actively persecuting me. No one, as far as I know, is out to get me. In fact, when I read the Psalms and try to pray them, sometimes all their talk of God destroying the Psalmist’s enemies makes me a little uncomfortable. In general, I like to think that I’m pretty unobjectionable and easy-to-get-along-with, the kind of person who doesn’t make a worthwhile enemy.
The obvious enemy in Jesus’ day would have been the Roman Empire and the people who represented it: the soldiers and governors and tax collectors who oppressed the poor peasants of Judea and Galilee. In those days the enemy was all around you, and the enemy wanted peace and prosperity at your expense. They would stop at nothing to maintain order and power, putting down any attempts to revolt and making sure you weren’t entirely free. We don’t have the Roman Empire to contend with now—in fact, if anyone is the Roman Empire, it’s probably us. But we do have countries in this world with whom we are in conflict, who threaten our sense of peace and security sometimes, like Iran, maybe, and North Korea. So maybe, if I had to pick an answer, I could say that they are my enemies.
But then, I don’t know. Their governments may have their issues with my governments, but I certainly don’t have anything against the average citizen of Iran or North Korea. Maybe if the conflict felt closer, if it was something I could see and feel as part of my everyday life, if I was Palestinian, for example, or if I were Israeli, then it would be different. As it is, I don’t really feel like any of those places or their people is my enemy.
The other obvious enemy, less in Jesus’ day than in Matthew’s and Luke’s and that of the people they are writing for, is the people who are persecuting the early Christians. These people would not have represented one particular government or group of people; they were the ones who chose to be the bad guys and do bad things to innocent people. And so I think, what about Al Qaeda or ISIS? Are they my enemy? Yes, I would probably consider them that. They are terrorists, and the idea that I might be supposed to love a terrorist chafes. It seems wrong, almost, which loving your enemies is supposed to.
And yet, in my normal, everyday life, Al Qaeda and ISIS are more of an idea than a tangible reality. I know I’m lucky for that. I didn’t lose a loved one in 9-11 or fighting in the military against them. But in a sense, even though those are some of the people in the world I would find it most objectionable to love, the idea of loving them is a pretty abstract thing. Most of them don’t have faces, to me. And in a way that makes it easier. I can love them, in theory, from afar, while my government continues to send drones to attack their strongholds. God forbid that love ever truly be tested.
I remember reading once—and I admit I can’t for the life of me remember where—about a counselor who worked in a refugee camp with people who were fleeing a war. The people she met there had truly seen the horrors and brokenness of this world up close, and she was prepared for some pretty deep stuff. But in the end, she discovered, the things people wanted to talk about weren’t the deep horrors and brokenness of this world. They wanted to talk about so-and-so, who stole their boyfriend, and things like that.
So I can imagine that when Jesus told those crowds that day to love your enemies, for many of the people gathered there, it wasn’t the Roman Empire or its soldiers who immediately sprang to mind. It was their average, everyday enemies. The husband who beat them or the neighbor who made life hard for them or the sister Mom always liked best.
Maybe, most of the time, that’s really who my enemy is—not the person who abstractly represents the darkest evil to me, but the person it’s really easy to hate up close.
As I’ve already told you, I like to think I’m not the kind of person who has THAT kind of enemy.
But if I’m honest, there are a few who come to mind from over the years. There was the sixth-grade boy at my bus stop when I was in fifth grade who bullied me so mercilessly every morning that finally my mother had to drive me to another bus stop. Then there was the professor who came to class unprepared every day, who failed me on an assignment for misunderstanding the directions, and then acted like I was an idiot when I tried to talk to him about it. And there was the coworker who criticized everything I did to the point of making me cry and who told everyone else that I wasn’t even trying.
To say that I loved any of those people would have been, at the least, an overstatement.
Then, of course, there are all the people here and there who simply seem to be trying to make my life harder on any particular day, like the driver trying to steal my right-of-way, or like the guy who snapped at me at Wegman’s the other day for trailing him too closely with my cart. (He was going really slow.)
When Jesus said to love your enemies, no one asked him to specify, and he didn’t get to tell a story. But I imagine that if they did and if he had, the moral would have been that my enemy is whoever I am finding it hardest to love at any particular time.
“Love that person,” Jesus tells us.
But what does he mean by love?
Don’t get me wrong, I know what it means to love people, like my family, and my spouse, and my friends—albeit imperfectly. I know that it means wanting what is good for them, and being there for them, possibly sacrificing for them, praying for God to help them, and appreciating them for all the things that are good about them, even if they are imperfect, too. It’s just that surely love must mean something different when it comes to someone I actually…hate.
Maybe, in this case, love means staying out of the way. Maybe love means not actively wishing for them to get fired, or run over.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Jesus is having any of that. When he tells us to pray for the people who persecute us, he’s telling us to do the same thing we would do for a loved one, for them. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, as reminder, later died at the hand of the Nazis, once wrote that any sacrifice you would make for your beloved, you should be willing to make for your enemy.
Could I really imagine that? Could you?
One thing I’ll say about Jesus, he never sets the bar low.
I did get to practice this once, which is probably far less than I have had the opportunity. My enemy, on this particular day, was a certain politician. I won’t get into too many specifics here except to say it wasn’t Donald Trump. Of course this politician had no idea who I was, and didn’t attack me personally. I don’t even try to wrap up my sense of well-being too closely with the acts of politicians, but this guy happened to do something that made me really, really mad. So mad I could feel the anger bubbling up inside of me.
I was so mad I couldn’t sit still, and I had to get up and move. So I took a walk in the woods, the place I always went when I needed to process something or work something out for myself. I walked, and I felt angry, and I remembered Jesus’ commandment. Love your enemies. Pray for them.
I realized this person was my enemy. Not that I was planning to physically fight against him or take him down or sabotage his career, or do anything except maybe write a very pointed email, but it didn’t matter. The way I felt, that day, he was my enemy.
Another thing Dietrich Bonhoeffer says is that the only enemies a Christian should have are those people who hate us, since we shouldn’t go around hating anyone. All I can say is that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a better person than me.
As I walked and worked to calm myself down, I tried to pray for him. Only I realized I wasn’t really sure how. The idea of praying that he would change and somehow come around to see things my way, the good way, seemed a little self-righteous, even if I was right. I could not, at that point, muster any words to ask God to bless this person and bring him all sorts of good things in life, like reelection.
So what I did is simply try to remind myself that this was a person who probably loved his wife and children. A person who, probably, was trying to do his best, as much as I felt that left to be desired. I don’t know if that’s the kind of prayer Jesus meant, but it did calm me down a little. And it did humble me a little. Perhaps this person was not as bad as I had initially assumed, and perhaps also, I was not as good.
“Praying for our enemies,” one commentator wrote, “involves a serious attempt to see them from God’s point of view.” And this is a God who loves my enemy as much as my enemy’s enemy, that is to say, me. A God who created us both in God’s image.
Which brings us to the why of it all—why Jesus commanded this impossible-seeming commandment.
Some might say that it is to change them: that they will see our ways and be won over. There’s something very Taming of the Shrew about that—the idea that we might kill someone with kindness, and make them who we want them to be. But again, the danger here is that of assuming that what my enemy needs to change into is something more like me. Maybe sometimes that is the case. I’m not a terrorist, so I think it would be a good thing if terrorists were more like me. On the other hand, when it comes to sometimes-enemies like liberals and conversatives, atheists and fundamentalists, gun nuts and Brady campaigners, protestors and police—it must be relatively rare that I am so wholly on the side of good and my enemy is so wholly on the side of evil that what my enemy needs most is to be on my side.
Some might say it is to defeat them: that if our enemy doesn’t see the light, at least others will, and that justice will prevail. It does indeed seem to work this way, sometimes. As Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” The nonviolence and love for enemy that he espoused were an important part of the success the civil rights movement of the 1960s had, although we do still have a long way to go. In fact, proponents of nonviolent resistance—including Jesus—might say that it is the only way to really win.
And yet winning is not guaranteed, and not all people who have tried to love their enemy through nonviolent resistance have defeated them in this life. “Love,” that same commentator wrote, “is not a weapon or a tool.”
Rather, we should love them because God loves them. We should love them because God sends rain and sun on both the just and the unjust, rain for growth and abundance and sun for warmth and joy. We should love them because God provides those things to us, because God has given us more grace than we deserve, and who are we to withhold that grace from others?
We should love them because it’s by doing so that we begin to reflect, a little more, the image of God. We should love them because, by doing so, we experience a little bit more of what salvation means.
I don’t kid myself that this is an easy thing to do, that just because Jesus commanded it I can just say, “Well, all right then, I’ll love my enemies!” Maybe love is comprised of a lot of biting my tongue, and a lot of swallowing my pride, and a lot of prayers for patience. Maybe it’s praying prayers that I don’t yet mean, for someone’s well-being, in faith that someday I might. And maybe it’s a lot of imagining that perhaps that person I’m inclined to hate is more like me than I’d ever care to admit.
Those things might not be perfect love, love the way God loves, but they are a start.
And meanwhile that grace by which God sends us sun and rain and family and food and community, that grace that is for all of us, is also the grace that softens our hearts and changes us. Even us, with all our enemies.
 Luke 10:25-37
 Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 148
 Cost of Discipleship, p. 147-148
 Interpretation: Matthew, p. 59