There is a deadly problem evident throughout society today. When someone hurts or threatens us, most of people want to retaliate. We strike back with words or actions. Even a pastor who had been slighted told me that he knew how to “get even.”
Is there an alternative to the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” mentality that contributes to a never ending stream of violence in the Balkans, Rwanda, the Middle East, and even here in North America?
One of the most difficult teachings of Jesus, both to understand and to apply, is His command in Matthew 5:44, “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Here Jesus provides a biblical alternative to “getting even.”
The Context of the Teaching
The admonition to “love your enemies” appears in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here Jesus presents an alternative to the most common and frequent manner of dealing with one’s enemies. The contrast is evident His words, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I [Jesus] say to you . . .” (Matthew 5:43-44).
Matthew 5:43 reflects the widely held philosophy of relationships in first century Israel, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” The command, “love your neighbor,” is taken directly from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus reiterated this principle (“love one another”) in His new commandment (John 13:34).
What about the words, “and hate your enemy”? This command is not found
anywhere in the Bible. But some people thought that if you loved your neighbor, the opposite feelings were appropriate for an enemy. The Old Testament law of retaliation (Lev. 24:19-21) seemed to sanction “getting even.” Josephus, the first century Jewish historian reports that the Essenes, a contemporary Jewish sect, had to swear to “hate the unjust.” Jesus was clearly distancing Himself from such thinking.
The Command of Jesus
Jesus took the command “love your neighbor” to a new level when He said,
“Love your enemies; return good for evil.” My enemy was Fred Lopez. He appeared one morning in my Sunday School class with an angry attitude and a critical questions. He left before class was over, slamming the door behind him. Fred was back for the Sunday evening service where
he repeated this routine. For the next month or so, Fred was in and out of church, criticizing, condemning, feeling offended, and seeking apologies from pastors and parishioners alike.
It was easy for me to dislike Fred. He was a threat, a disruption to my ministry. The Greek word echthros translated “enemy” literally means “hated [one].” An enemy is “hated” because of the hostility and threat such a person brings into your life. How was I to respond to Fred and other people like him?
Jesus’ answer is simple, but profound. “Replace your hatred with love,” said
Jesus. Easy to say, but not easy to do! Other early rabbis had approached this
principle. One rabbi taught, “Rejoice not when you enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he is overthrown” (Mishnah Aboth 4.19). Jesus took reconciliation a step further. He said, “treat your enemy as your beloved friend.”
Fred passed out of my life as suddenly as he had appeared. But during the
weeks that he invaded my comfort zone, God helped me show him kindness and compassion as a fellow-human being who is precious to God.
The Call to Image God
God has made us in His image (Genesis 1:26-27) and called us to display “God-likeness” in the way we related to our enemies. Jesus commanded, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45). These words suggest that when
we love our enemies we reflect the character of God. When we treat both our friends and enemies with grace and kindness, we are behaving much like our Heavenly Father who is no respecter of persons when bestowing His blessings of sunshine and rain.
Jesus pointed out that when we love those who love us, we are not much
different than unbelieving tax gatherers who do the same (Matthew 5:46). And when we greet only those we consider “brothers,” how is that any different than the behavior of unbelieving Gentiles (Matthew 5:47)?
Jesus is calling His disciples to a different standard of behavior than that of the world. He sums up His point in Matthew 5:48, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus is not suggesting here that we may attain a sinless perfection here on this earth. The word translated “perfect” literally means “having reached its end.” In this context it refers to a complete or mature benevolence which we can extend toward our enemies as we follow the example of God.
Loving those who threaten and intimidate us is a formidable challenge. But as God enables us to do so, we will reflect more accurately to an unbelieving and hostile world the goodness, grace, and patience of our Heavenly Father. It pleases me to hear friends say that my son is just like me in the way he looks and behaves. And I am confident that God is pleased when people can see His character imaged in our lives.
The Practical Steps for Disciples
The challenge was so overwhelming that the goal had never been achieved. Yet on the morning of May 29, 1953 Edmond Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay began their attempt to reach the top of Mt. Everest And later that day, with oxygen tanks running low, the two climbers stood together on the 29,028 ft. summit. Although extremely difficult, their objective was reached by many small steps.
What small steps might Christ’s followers take to start loving their enemies? Here are a few practical suggestions:
1. Don’t bank your hurts. People sometimes become our enemy when they repeatedly hurt us. Banking those hurts will make it harder to forgive. Peter was banking his hurts when he said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matt. 18:21)? Jesus’ reply suggests that if you are banking your hurts, you haven’t really forgiven (Matt. 18:22). Deal with each little hurt through grace and
forgiveness, even when the offender fails to recognize or apologize for the damage done.
2. Don’t reply in anger. Proverbs 15:1 reminds us, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” If you want the situation to escalate, strike back with piercing words. But if you want to reflect your Heavenly Father, surprise your enemy with kind and gentle words. It is very hard to be hostile towards someone who insists on being nice!
3. Be patient with annoying people. Like mosquitoes, some people persistently annoy us. But Paul provided the solution when he wrote, “Be patient with all men [ie. people]” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
4. Pray for those who hurt you. Jesus said, “Pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44), and He did so Himself when he prayed for those who had nailed Him on a cross (Luke 23:24). It is hard to hate someone you are praying for!
5. Turn your enemy into a friend. Solomon said, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD, he makes even his enemies be at peace with him” (Proverbs 16:7). Isaac demonstrated this attitude in his relationship with the troublesome Philistine (Gen. 26:27-31).
The Civil War had recently ended when a group of angry southerners gained an audience with President Lincoln, airing their complaints. His gentle, friendly manner soon thawed their icy hostility and left them with a new respect for their old foe. When a northern congressman insisted that Lincoln must destroy, not befriend his enemies, Lincoln smiled and replied, “Am I not destroying my enemies by making them my friends.”
Accepting the Challenge
Jake Sheehan might have been considered an enemy after he accidently shot
Jared Borella, his best friend. Rhonda Borella sat by Jared’s bed at the hospital for three days and three nights while her son was fighting for his life. It was during those long hours that she had the opportunity to reflect on what happened and find it within her to forgive.
When Jake went to visit his friend in the hospital after the shooting, he was
fearful and uncertain. But instead of hostility, he experienced genuine love and a profound forgiveness. Rhonda put her arms around Jake and they entered Jared’s room together.
According to Jesus, God-like love is for everyone–friend and foe alike. Love has greater power to resolve conflicts than hatred and hostility!
Surprise the next person who hurts you. Take the biblical alternative to “getting even.” Replace the spirit of retaliation with Christ-like love.