Are you kidding me? In this poisonous political climate, we’re going to drop “love your enemy”? Jesus, are you trying to get me killed?
This is what you might call a hard word. It’s hard to hear, and hard to preach.
Yet, there it is, plain as day, the teaching of our Lord and Savior:
I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven.
Now what are we to do with that?
Let’s back up and begin at the beginning. This is part of Jesus’ effort to call his disciples to a higher standard than simply following the rules. We have to go above and beyond. Last week it was about getting along with people you know: reconciling with a brother, not throwing away your spouse. This week, the focus turns outward for the most part, and the standard gets higher.
First Jesus talks about the lex talionis, the law of retaliation. That’s the principle that the punishment for an offense should not exceed the offense itself. So let’s say—and why not—that I gouge your eye out…the law says you can claim no more than my eye in exchange. Can’t kill me for my crime.
But again, Jesus wants his disciples to go above and beyond. So if somebody hits your cheek, he says (an insult and punishable offense in those days), don’t retaliate, just walk away.
And if somebody wants to take your coat, give them your undershirt as well. (A coat was often the only thing of value somebody had, the kind of thing a man would use as collateral for a loan. A cloak or “shirt” was the bottom layer of clothing, next to the skin.)
And if somebody forces you into service, do them one better. Double their demand!
And if somebody wants to borrow from you? Say yes. Ditto begging.
All of this seems difficult, if not impossible, to carry out in practice. People are naturally very resistant to it—they see threats. And sometimes legitimately so!
There are a couple of theories about what’s going on here. One is that Jesus is suggesting his followers “kill ‘em with kindness,” or as it says elsewhere, “heap burning coals on their heads.” It’s also possible that this is deliberate exaggeration meant to get people thinking about what their duties actually are.
But there’s a third possibility worth considering. At least one scholar sees signs that all of these lessons take place against the backdrop of Roman military occupation.
That bit about going the extra mile? That’s something Roman soldiers did to civilians. And Jesus uses the less-familiar Latin word for mile, not the better-known Greek term. If he lived today, we’d call that subtweeting.
But who do you think the “enemy” was, anyway? Even in Jesus’ day, there was debate about how to respond to the Roman presence in Israel. Some factions advocated violent rebellion—a plan they later carried out with disastrous results.
Jesus offers another alternative: not violence, but something like subversion.
As we’ve seen with countless non-violent protests since, when you stick to the core of what’s right in the face of oppression, you highlight the injustice of what’s being done to you. It’s an excellent way for people without power to resist injustice.
But “love your enemy”? Really?
Understand this: “love” and “hate” aren’t primarily about emotions—they’re about duty. For example, kings would command their subjects to love them, meaning pay their taxes and obey the laws.
So it’s possible that Jesus is saying: “Do the right thing, always, even for people you would consider your enemy.” That includes praying for them: seeing them as God sees them, resisting the temptation to dehumanize them, and reminding ourselves of the grace, mercy, and love shown to us by God.
It’s important to understand as well that this kind of love cannot be given with any kind of expectation of return. My enemies may or may not be converted by my prayers, and they may or may not become better people. Whatever, that’s between them and God. Still, this points the way forward, I think.
I won’t give my enemies the satisfaction of hating them. Being irritated by them, perhaps, but that’s a sermon for another time. Instead, I will do what is right by them, including praying for them and their salvation. Not because I hope to get anything out of them. Because I have been called, like all Christians, to be perfect as my Father in heven is perfect, and that begins with love.
Amen.+ + +