Suppose you were a lifeguard rescuing a drowning person.
If the person was your best friend or even a casual acquaintance, we would probably risk our lives to save them without thinking. But suppose the drowning person was a contemptible person—our enemy. Someone who had wronged us, committed some injustice, cheated us, or slandered our name. Worse yet, what if we knew the person was a sexual predator, a murderer, a child abuser, or an addict?
Jesus says we must risk ourselves no matter who the person is or what they have done. Another of his hard teachings.
Many refer to this as the heart of the Sermon on the Mount because Jesus contrasts true and false righteousness (real versus play religion). The religious leaders had corrupted God’s standards, so Jesus reminds them of what they had been taught: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
This corrupted teaching had left out a part of the teaching of the Old Testament: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Bible taught to help a fellow countryman by returning his lost animal. This also applied to an enemy. A neighbor was anyone in need.
The religious leaders had changed God’s standard. They taught people to love those they got along with but to hate their enemies. They left out the phrase, “as yourself.” They could not imagine loving someone else as much as they loved their self-centered selves.
The phrase “as yourself” was only partially taught and practiced. They also narrowed the meaning of neighbor to those they preferred or approved of—and they only approved of their kind.
They also added the phrase, “hate your enemy.” Anyone not an Israelite was an enemy. One of the sayings of the Pharisees said, “If a Jew sees a Gentile fallen into the sea, let him by no means lift him out, for it is written, ‘Thou shalt not rise up against the blood of thy neighbor,’ but this man is not thy neighbor.” Pride led them to hate of the Gentiles.
Respond to Enemy Behavior with Love
Jesus said to love our enemies. God responds to us without discrimination. This is the most powerful teaching on love.
The command must have seemed foolish and naïve to the listeners. The religious leaders were a proud and prejudiced lot who tended to be hateful and judgmental. Many of them were hypocrites masquerading under the guise of God’s law. They felt it was their duty to hate their enemies.
Jesus taught something different. He also placed his word on the same level as Scripture. This must have startled his hearers because he was the standard of truth.
We tend to base our love on the desirability of the object. We also tend to love those like us or those we would like to be like.
The Bible speaks of several kinds of love, but Jesus speaks of the agape type, a type that involves action.
God loved us while we were sinners, so the question is not whom to love, but how to love most helpfully. People can be mean, slanderous, abusive, and judgmental.
C. H. Lenski said, “(Love) indeed, sees all the hatefulness and the wickedness of the enemy, feels his stabs and his blows…but all this simply fills the loving heart with the one desire and aim, to free its enemy from his hate, to rescue him from his sin, and thus to save his soul.”
Respond to Enemy Behavior with Prayer
We devise many things to cover the guilt of our sin—religious beliefs, rituals, practices, and religious persecution. What we should let others see is our divine standards as a judgment on their wickedness.
Just as Jesus was persecuted, so we will be. When it comes, we should pray for those doing it. We should pray they will seek forgiveness and the grace of God. We should demonstrate the agape love of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor who suffered and was killed in Nazi Germany. He said of Jesus’ teaching, “This is the supreme demand. Through the medium of prayer, we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God.”
Respond to Enemy Behavior By Showing Our Relationship with Christ
Loving and praying shows our enemies we are different, but responding this way isn’t the norm. Nor can we do it in our own strength. A common charge against Christianity is that we don’t live up to our name. We must show impartial love, not wait until people merit or deserve it.
Oswald Sanders said, “The Master expects from His disciples such conduct as can be explained only in terms of the supernatural.”
The story is told of a Christian doctor and Navajo nurses who nursed a poor Navajo woman back to health. She had been cast out by her people when they thought she was dying. She was found after several days of exposure and carried to a hospital.
After nine weeks, she began to wonder about the care she got. She said to a nurse, “I can’t understand it. Why did the doctor do all that for me? He is a white man, and I am an Indian. I never heard of anything like this before.”
The Navajo nurse, who was a Christian, said, “You know, it is the love of Christ that made him do that.”
She asked to be told more about Christ, so the nurse called a missionary to explain, and the staff began to pray. After several weeks she was asked, “Can’t you trust this Savior, turn from the idols you have worshipped, and trust him as the Son of the living God?”
The lady thought about her answer. As she did, the doctor came in. Her face lit up and she said, “If Jesus is anything like the doctor, I can trust him forever.”