Summary: Jesus challenges the common wisdom of his day, stating God doesn't want us to "love our neighbor and hate our enemy" but to love everyone, including our enemies. This is impossible without the love of God flowing through us.
Love without Limits
Did you know your body is not designed to carry anger for very long? Now don’t get me wrong: anger is a helpful emotion. It tells you something is terribly wrong. But God designed your body to resolve anger as quickly as possible and to move on. Resentment and bitterness eat at our soul. They cause our bodies to age prematurely. So how can we get better at forgiving our enemies and even wishing them well? That’s what Jesus addresses next in his famous Sermon on the Mount.
He starts by quoting the common thought of the day, a strange combination of scripture and custom. He says, in verse 43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Well, the first part—“love your neighbor”—is straight from scripture. Way back in Leviticus 19:18, part of the Jewish Torah, the first five books of the Bible considered most sacred and honored, God says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus later quotes this as one of the two greatest commandments: to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). This is right from God.
But the second half of the phrase, “Hate your enemy” – you won’t find in scripture. It’s not there. I looked! About the closest you’ll find is part of a psalm of David, Psalm 139:21-22: “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” Here David is using the pledge of loyalty customary for a king of that time period: “Your friend is my friend, and your enemy is my enemy.” He is saying, God comes first.
But the lead religious people of Jesus’ day had taken this verse and run with it to conveniently suggest, “Love those who love you, and hate those who hate you.” Or, “Love people who are just like you, and feel free to hate people who are different from you.” They were mixing their own natural desires and feelings with what God’s word says, which prompted Jesus at another time to address who exactly is our neighbor? The answer: anyone in need. Think the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).
In our passage today, Jesus says, “Let me show you God’s intent: that you love everyone, including your enemies.” Now I heard about a pastor who was preaching on this text, and he took a survey and said, “How many of you have enemies?” Well, practically the whole church raised their hands. Then he said, “Is there anyone who has no enemies at all?” One hand went up in the back. And the pastor called on the old man and said, “Well done, sir! How is it that you have not a single enemy?” The old man responded, “I outlived them all!”
Well, that’s not the only way to work your way out of enemies. Jesus gives us some tips here. First, in verse 44, he says, “Pray for them!” In one of my churches I had a person that crossed me at every turn. It got worse and worse. Now I’m not recommending this kind of prayer, but I prayed, “Lord, this guy’s had a full life. Why don’t you bring him home? He’s not serving any good on this earth anymore.” That’s not exactly a prayer that will move you toward reconciliation. (And I promise not to pray that for you!) But you know, God takes us where we are. And thank God, he doesn’t leave us there. Over time, I was able to soften my prayers for this person and to realize that a lot of his hateful actions came from his poor health and his broken family relationships with his adult kids, and I actually came to pity him, to feel some compassion, which is a true sign that forgiveness is taking root. And praise God, we later parted on peaceful terms.
So, if you’re having trouble loving your enemy, first start by praying for them. Try to pray good things for them, not necessarily that God will remove them from the planet. But if that’s all you have, start there. And maybe, like me, God will work on your heart through your prayers.
You know, this thing about loving your enemies shouldn’t have been so shocking to Jesus’ listeners. Their Bible, the Old Testament, contains verses such as these: Exodus 23:4-5 - “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.” Proverbs 25:21-22 - “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.” Presumably, acting with unexpected and undeserved grace opens up the door to possible reconciliation.