Who are your enemies? That’s always the first question that springs to mind when I come across this passage. Who is my enemy?
Now, very few people have real enemies: dark hatted villains with curling mustaches that cackle and unleash dastardly schemes. Instead you have the people who disagree with you. The people who cut you off in traffic. The people who are on the other side of the political spectrum and love to argue about it. The person who just rubs you the wrong way. Or maybe it’s the person you thought you could trust and instead they betrayed you. We can all think of someone we have less than fond feelings for. The question is, how do we deal with them?
There are some people who relish the arguments and drama these enemies can stir up. They seem to seek out arguments. Many people just try to avoid their enemies and get on with their lives. But Jesus comes along this morning and tells us to love them. Just like that. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Now, that’s not a very good way to sell the argument Jesus. If I have to love my enemies, tell me what’s in it for me, right?
Tell me that I need to love my enemies because hatred and negativity is bad for my mental and physical health. Or that I need to love my enemies because spending energy hating them gives them power over me. Or that it proves who is the better person. Or do what Paul did: tell me to love my enemies because, being kind to my enemies is a way to “heap burning coals on their heads.” Now that’s motivating!
But Jesus doesn’t offer any common sense reason to love our enemies. Instead we are told only that we should live that way because that’s the way God lives. We should be perfect as God as perfect.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear that I’m supposed to be perfect, my first inclination is to laugh. I know I’ll never be perfect. I know I’ll never get close. After all, only Christ was perfect.
But the word we translate as “perfect” is the Greek word telos and it actually implies less moral perfection and more reaching one’s intended outcome. The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. Telos is reaching the best you, you can be. Fulfilling your purpose completely.
Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.”
So yeah, in that sense when we are called to love our enemies we are also doing it for ourselves. Because by doing so, we live into the best of who we are called to be.
Right, but what about the times when it isn’t just someone we disagree with? Is it realistic to expect the families of murder victims to forgive and love the people who took their loved ones from them? Is Jesus asking a battered wife to pray for the one who abuses her, to offer the other cheek to the husband who has struck the first one? Yes, God sends sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, but are we called to love and be merciful to people who take us for granted and use us for their own advantage? When someone hurts us or cheats us or those we love, how are we supposed to love them without suffering abuse us again?
Because loving them doesn’t mean that we must suffer at their hands. It doesn’t mean condoning actions that are harmful. Martin Luther King, Jr., once wrote: ‘Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship … We must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy.”
King concludes that when Jesus asks us to love our enemies he is pleading with us to offer understanding and creative goodwill to all people. This is the only way we can truly be children of a loving God.
To love the enemy does not mean to like the enemy. Even if you don’t like someone you can still treat them with respect. You don’t have to like someone to behave as though their life and feelings matter. And loving our enemies also doesn’t mean that we must remain in situations that are harmful to our physical or emotional well-being. Instead to love our enemies means to understand them as human beings, troubled and sinful human beings who have hurt us because they themselves hurt inside. It means to make a decision to respond to them in ways which will benefit them and perhaps lead to healing.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer gets right at the heart of this text: “By our enemies Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, … [but] Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it. And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and utterly devoid of love?” We cannot control how they may behave, but we can still treat them as though they are also children of God.
But just because our enemies may need our love, that doesn’t make it easier to love them, does it? I think it many ways this is the hardest thing Jesus ever tells us to do. Not just to not hate our enemies, but to love them and pray for them. Praying for our enemies is so much more difficult than not-hating them. After all, not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active. And Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies.
Now, I don’t believe that prayer will necessarily “change their hearts,” as people often say about the ones they are trying to not hate. But I do believe it will likely change my heart. When I pray for someone, I start to see that person as I imagine God does: as a flawed human being made in God’s image. Just like me.
So yes, I pray for my enemies. The prayer usually begins along the lines of “Lord, please love this person for me because I don’t know how right now. I’ll keep working on forgiving them in the meantime.” My enemy’s actions probably won’t change. They won’t suddenly see my side or become a better person or apologize for their past actions. But I will change. And I will come closer to the telos that I should be.
I hear in this passage today the invitation to be those people God has created us to be. When we do we have the chance to flourish, making a difference to those around us by sharing the abundant life Jesus has given us
Jesus is calling us to a better way to live, to a higher path than the world sets before us. We can be more than petty arguments and deep resentments. We can be the people Christ calls us to be: ones who love even the unlovable. We can reach our telos and that will shape the world around us.
So today I say to you: Love your enemies. Love the ones who annoy you, the ones who hurt you, the ones who betray you. Pray for them. And grow into the people God always knew you could be.