A story is told of a Bishop who came to take a tour around a town in his diocese. He was very impressed by what he saw. There was a church on every corner. Dozens of them! Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, you name it, they were all there. Churches and chapels abounded! At the end of the day the Bishop turned to his guide and said “I’m very impressed. There are so many churches in this town - you must all love God very much!” “Oh no”, replied his guide, “It’s because we all hate each other!”
The words “love” and “hate” are strong words aren’t they? Two strong words with opposite meanings. Words which both appear in our Bible passage today - in verses 43 and 44 to be precise. In those verses Jesus says to his disciples: ‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’
These words of Jesus overturned tradition and challenged the prejudices of his first disciples. They are words that would have been uncomfortable and unsettling for those first Christians to hear. And, as we shall see, they are words that are just as challenging for us today, just as counter-cultural today as they were 2000 years ago. How can we love those we dislike? Why should we care for those who do us evil?
Big questions, but before I go any further, let’s pray: Lord Jesus, help me to explain your words to us today - and help us all to hear them and obey. Amen.
- Know your enemy!
One of the first laws of warfare is to know your enemy. For centuries military strategists have sought to understand their enemies in order to identify their weaknesses, expose where they are vulnerable, and then go in for the kill.
If we are Christians, Jesus also expects us to know our enemies. We need to know which people make us feel angry, upset, under threat or simply uncomfortable. But we need to know our enemies not so we can launch an attack on them – but so that we can love them.
Zealous first century Jews had a very clear understanding of who their enemies were. The Romans, who occupied their land, were top of their list, followed by Samaritans, tax-collectors and non-Jewish Gentiles.
This hostile attitude was a result of prejudice, national pride and mistaken religious rules. Rules like the one Jesus quotes in our passage today: “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy”. This was a human law, not a divine one, because those words never appear in the Old Testament. It’s true that Leviticus chapter 19 commands the Israelites to “Love your neighbour” - but it certainly doesn’t go on to say “and hate your enemy”.
Quite the opposite, in fact, because Leviticus actually instructs the Israelites to love anyone in their midst, whether Jew or Gentile. It says “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not ill-treat them. The foreigner living among you must be treated as one of your own. Love them as you love yourself”(v.34). So by telling his followers to love their enemies, Jesus wasn’t contradicting what God had said in the past. Rather, he was affirming and extending the Old Testament law of love. Extending it to everyone, even our enemies.
It probably says something about me that I was quickly and easily able to draw up a list of my potential enemies. My list of people it is tempting to oppose, avoid or ignore today. The sort of people who can make me feel angry, uncomfortable or under threat. My initial, light-hearted list includes:
- Manchester United supporters;
- Middle lane hoggers on the motorway; and
- People who pinch my car-parking space!
More seriously, there are types of people we are all tempted to treat as enemies. People we are tempted to ignore, avoid or actively oppose. For example, our list of potential enemies might include:
- Colleagues at work who oppose our Christian faith – aggressive atheists perhaps;
- Or we may feel alienated from people with a different background, lifestyle or political persuasion to our own;
- In our own community, we may view those who are antisocial or rude as our enemies;
- And finally, we may be tempted to avoid people whose personality clashes with ours – sadly perhaps even people within our own family, or within our own church.
Just take a moment to think about the people who make YOU feel unhappy, uncomfortable or annoyed. As Christians, whenever we have such feelings we are to remember Jesus’ command to love them. To love those people universally, unconditionally and indiscriminately, however hard that may be.
- Love your enemies!
So we are to love our enemies. But what does loving our enemies actually look like? Is love just a feeling? No - Jesus isn’t just asking us to conjure up warm, sentimental feelings towards our enemies. Real Christian love is far more practical, much more demanding, than that. Real love of our enemies is costly and counter-cultural.
- Firstly, loving enemies is costly because it is so sacrificial. Loving our enemies can be uncomfortable and difficult. As we read in verses 39 to 41 today, loving our enemies may involve turning the cheek, giving away our coat or walking the extra mile. Loving our enemies can be financially costly and physically painful.
- Loving your enemy is also radically counter-cultural. In the wider world, everyone loves people who love them. In our society, everyone loves people who can give them something back in return. In our culture, people usually love those who are most like them. Jesus makes this point in verse 46 of our passage this morning. Listen again to what he says: “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?”
Christian love is distinctive because it is so one-sided. It is to show love without any expectation of it being shown in return. This kind of Christian love is as counter-cultural today as it was two thousand years ago.
So loving our enemies in costly and counter-cultural, but what does it actually involve in practice? How can Christians actually love our enemies on a day-to-day basis? Well here’s a couple of suggestions of my own, plus two from the lips of Jesus himself:
Firstly, loving our enemies requires patience and perseverance. We can be patient towards our enemies by spending time with them, not running away as fast as we can. Even if we find someone hard to understand or uncomfortable to be around, we should keep trying to build a relationship with them. We are to persevere with people we find difficult or different - just as God perseveres with us!
Secondly, loving our enemies we should include being generous to them. Generous with our time, our money, our skills or our possessions. We are to give without any expectation of return. As Jesus says in verse 42 today: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
Loving our enemies should surely also include controlling our tongue. We are not to be rude about our enemies. However much they may irritate or annoy us, we should not to speak aggressively or cruelly to them. (Remember Jesus’ words about anger management three Sundays ago!) We’re not to respond to insults or mockery with insults of our own.
Think how Jesus responded to the insults and abuse he faced on Good Friday - the final day of his earthly life. Sometimes he remained silent, as he did at his trial. And sometimes he spoke words of forgiveness or blessing, as he did to the thief hanging on the cross next to him. What kind words or compliments can we say to our enemies? Can we share our faith with them rather than share insult? Can we offer words of forgiveness rather than words of aggression?
Lastly, loving our enemies must include praying for them. That’s what Jesus himself tells us to do in verse 44 of today’s passage: “pray for those who persecute you” he says . Can I challenge us all to pray for any enemies we have? Pray that God will help us to love them more. Pray that they will appreciate our efforts to build a relationship with them. And most of all, pray that the love we show them they will point them towards the Lord Jesus.
- Why love our enemies?
I’m someone who loves a short-cut. I’m someone who loves things that save time at work, cut out a chore or get something done fast. Gadgets and labour-saving devices are a God-send as far as I’m concerned! So if you are anything like me, Jesus’command to love our enemies will sound like a lot of hard work. Isn’t it quicker and easier to simply avoid or ignore our enemies, rather than actively love them?
Well, as I draw to a close, I think our passage this morning gives us two reasons to love our enemies. Two motives to make the effort.
The first is out of obedience to Christ. Our passage today is a command from Christ to his disciples – its an instruction, not just a recommendation or a word of advice. In verse 44 Jesus simply says “I tell you: love your enemies”. So if we profess to be Christians - if we consider ourselves followers of Jesus - then we will want to do what he says.
If the first reason to love our enemies is to obey Christ, the second is to imitate our Heavenly Father. As Christians we are God’s adopted children. We are his sons and daughters. And in verse 45 today Jesus encourages us to imitate our Father’s indiscriminate, unconditional love. He tells us that “our Father in heaven…causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” We are to copy our Father’s character, and imitate his generous, gracious love.
Indeed, we were all once God’s enemies, yet he graciously sent his Son to save us from our sins. God the Father withheld nothing in his desire to bring us back to him. We too should withhold nothing from our enemies. Jesus sums this all up in our final verse today: “Be perfect” he says “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
So we are to love our enemies in obedience to Christ and in imitation of our Heavenly Father. But, of course there is one member of the Godhead missing. One member of the Holy Trinity who makes it possible for us to obey Christ and imitate our Heavenly Father’s love. And he’s the Holy Spirit, who is at work within every believer. He can give us the desire and the ability to love our enemies day by day. The power of God’s Holy Spirit is able to help us love the unlovely, if only we let him. It is the Holy Spirit who produces the fruit of patience, kindness and prayerfulness in our lives. The fruit we all need to love our enemies each and every day.
So let’s pray: Heavenly Father, help us to love others as unconditionally as you love us. Show us how we can love those we are tempted to oppose or ignore. And empower us with your Spirit to love in a way that is Christ-like and costly. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.