The difficulty of loving our enemies makes Matthew 5:43-48 from the Sermon on the Mount seem impractical for most anyone who reads it.
The commandment to love our neighbor appears to be less difficult. “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40).
Who Is Our Neighbor?
That’s the question a lawyer once asked Jesus, and Jesus replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
This lawyer asked Jesus one of the first questions that human beings ask when we become aware that there is more to life that what’s happening right now.
The lawyer asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus asked him in return, what do you read in the law? What do you read in the Bible?
The lawyer then said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus agreed. You have given the right answer, Jesus told the lawyer.
Of course, knowing the right answer is not the main point. So Jesus added, do this, and you will live. Love God with all that you have and all that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself, and you will live.
But, like all human beings at the beginning of their encounter with God and spiritual life, the lawyer wanted to nail things down, preferably with the narrowest possible definition of the word, “neighbor.”
So he asked, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response.
Three men were going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Two of them were members of Jesus’ people. The third was a Samaritan. Samaritans and Jews worshiped God, but they differed on some points, and, by the time of Jesus, they had become each other’s enemies.
So, three men were traveling down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho at slightly different times. Each of them spotted another man lying by the side of the road where robbers had beaten him up.
But only the Samaritan stopped to help. That’s the origin of the phrase, “Good Samaritan.”
The Good Samaritan was probably the enemy of the man lying by the side of the road, but he stopped and helped. The Good Samaritan was certainly the enemy of Jesus’ people and the people who first heard the parable, but he stopped and gave help.
How Can Our Enemy Turn Out to Be Our Neighbor?
Under what definition of neighbor could our enemy see us as neighbors?
—Under the definition in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Love your enemies.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus transforms the commandment to love our neighbor into a commandment so expansive that it includes everybody.
Most emphatically, it includes our enemies.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44.)
•There’s no dodging the fact that Jesus said, “love your enemies.”
•There’s no dodging the plain and simple meaning of loving our enemies.
•There’s no getting around it with narrow definitions and elaborate interpretations.
Love Is Not Love If It’s Not Love for Everybody
Love is not love if we restrict it to some class of human beings smaller than all the human beings we have anything to do with.
Love is a way of acting toward everybody.
Loving those who love us—loving our families, loving our friends, loving our community, loving our country—are not bad things. In fact, most of us necessarily start out loving those who love us. We learn how to do loving things from those who have done loving things for us.
But love of country, love of community, love of friends, love of family—these loves are moral shadows of the love that does not discriminate between someone who loves us and someone who hates us.
Can Human Beings Love Their Enemies?
However, human beings do not have an instinct to love enemies.
•Loving enemies does not fit in with our instinctive urge to survive.
•Loving enemies is, in fact, a very hard thing to do or even to try to do.
Of course, people can say they’re Christians but try to avoid the consequences.
Maybe that’s the best explanation for why so many people claim the name of Jesus even though being a Christian clearly requires us to love our enemies.
Maybe, most of us just avoid loving our enemies by thinking about other things in the Bible, singing other songs from the hymnal, and focusing on all the details of church life instead of the reason for those details and the goal of our life together.
•It’s easy not to love our enemies.
•It’s hard to love them or even to try.
Jesus’ Three Arguments for Loving Our Enemies
The Sermon on the Mount presents us with three arguments in favor of loving our enemies in spite of its difficulty and apparent impracticality.
I use the word, argument, deliberately because, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus really is arguing with everybody, including “us.”
He’s arguing us out of our old and familiar ways and into something entirely new.
From the point of view of where all human beings start out, Jesus is arguing us into something entirely new and extremely unlikely.
(1) The Argument from Our Own Self-Interest
So, he starts out earlier in the Sermon on the Mount—in Matthew 5:21-26—with an argument from prudence, from what is in our own self-interest.
Have you noticed that we don’t always act in our own best interest? When we don’t respect and encourage each other’s lives, we get into conflicts that end up hurting our own lives.
That’s an argument from prudence.
Step back, Jesus says, and think what’s going to happen to you if you pursue a conflict with somebody else.
(2) The Argument from Our Desire to Be Good People
Jesus adds two more kinds of arguments here in Matthew 5:43-48.
The second argument appeals to our sense of ourselves as good people.
We like to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and think, “I’m a good person. I’m not like a lot of the people I know. I’m not like the people I read about in the newspaper and on the Internet. I’m a good person.”
In fact, if we love only the people who love us, we’re no different than the vast majority of human beings.
•Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
•Do not even the Gentiles—the nations of the earth—do the same?
That’s the second argument. It appeals to our sense of ourselves as good people.
(3) The Argument from What God Does
The third argument goes way beyond the first two.
The third argument appeals to our sense of who God is.
Or, more accurately, it replaces our sense of who God is with something astonishingly new.
When human beings believe in God at all, we typically visualize God as someone who whacks people on the head for doing something wrong.
•We project onto God all the judging that goes on in human society—our own experience of being judged by others and our own tendency to judge others.
•We think of God as someone who takes sides—especially our own side.
But Jesus shows us how much this misunderstanding of God contradicts the evidence in front of our eyes.
•When the sun shines, who benefits?
•When the rain comes, who benefits?
•Everybody benefits who needs the sunshine or the rain and without respect to how much evil or how much good they may have done.
God’s love does not discriminate between someone who loves God and someone who hates God.
God does not treat followers of Jesus differently from people who persecute followers of Jesus or want to persecute them.
That’s what the Sermon on the Mount teaches about God.
From that new sense of God comes the third argument in favor of Christian life.
Since God makes the sun to shine on the evil and on the good,
and since God sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,
therefore we should love our enemies.
We should love our enemies because God loves God’s enemies. We should love our enemies because God loves our enemies and because, certainly in the past if not still in the present, God’s enemies have included us.
Notice that the argument is not, “love your enemies or else God will whack you on the head.”
The argument is, instead, love your enemies because that’s what God does.
The argument is, love your enemies because
that’s what children of God do,
and we are children of God.