I’m cringing at this growing dump of insults, hurled in public spaces or in texts or face-to-face. Grudges fondled and fermented could ignite a searing blaze. Our natural response is fear and hatred of this “enemy” whose words and push-back feed distress, a tangled mess that could lead to catastrophe. But, Yahweh, You have told us: “You can walk on waves so high they crash with stormy fury on the fearful passerby!” If we have faith, our eyes on you. Can we do this? You said that we must shock a cruel enemy by answering insults with love! We need you in our hearts and minds, empowering us to be this kind! May eyes be opened, hearts swept clean as Spirit-wind blows hate away, and unexpected love reveals a different world, a Kingdom come where hatred has no sway! Jesus turned the world upside down by saying, “You have assumed that if you love your neighbor, that is, someone like you, then it’s just fine to hate your enemy—but I say, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” (Mat 5:43-44) Really? How can we love people who truly oppose us? And in what way are we supposed to pray for anyone who treats us badly because of our race, or political or religious beliefs? (That is the Oxford Languages definition of “persecution,” broader than what we usually think.) It is easy to dismiss this radical teaching of Jesus as not applicable to us personally. After all, “enemy” designates someone dangerous who is really out to get me, right? Not a relative who is mistreating me. Not someone who thrashes me verbally because we differ in our understanding of history or social justice. Not someone who refuses to help me or puts me down because my skin is the wrong color. But looking at the way Jesus lived out this commandment, we cannot miss the truth that those who were opposing him the most belonged to his own people – one of his disciples for instance, and the religious leaders of the Jewish faith. The attacks were verbal before they became physical. But he continued to teach them, to respond graciously with truth and love. I’m sure we have all had experiences with opposition. Some have even suffered real abuse. Jesus spoke out against injustice, and we should not be doormats who just let evil hold sway. But when it comes down to personal insults or harsh opposition, we are first of all to respond with love. This kind of response is indeed unexpected, and it may even cool the heated atmosphere. It may be the soft answer that turns away anger (Prov 15:1). Or how about Proverbs 25:21–22, cited by Paul in Romans 12:20: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” What are those burning coals? Walter Kaiser says that they “may mean the sense of shame which will be produced in the enemy, leading to a change of heart on his side too. But first do him a good turn; the feelings can be left to their own good time.”1 Dallas Willard explains that Jesus is contrasting “the ordinary way human beings love, loving those who love them, with God’s agape love. This is a love that reaches everyone we deal with.”2 It is the kind of love God showed when he sent his Son to earth to provide the way to salvation for broken people (John 3:16). It includes love for those who oppose you. To be like their Father, his children need to have their natural character transformed so that they can love like he does. Love for one’s neighbor was supported by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day; it was included in the Law, in Leviticus 19:18. But they defined “neighbor” as a fellow Jew. Gentiles were “enemies.” That is why Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan was shocking: It was a stranger to Israel, an “enemy,” who helped the injured “neighbor” when the Jews passing by would not. The Samaritan’s love for someone not of his ethnic group was shown through what he did, his act of compassion. Once again, Kaiser’s explanation is truly helpful: “The love of which the law and the gospel alike speak is a very practical attitude: ‘Let us not love with word or tongue [only] but with actions and in truth’ (1 Jn 3:18). Love to one’s neighbor is expressed in lending him a helping hand when that is what he needs: ‘Right,’ says Jesus, ‘lend your enemy a helping hand when that is what he needs. Your feelings toward him are not the important thing.’ But if we think we should develop more Christian feelings toward an enemy, Jesus points the way when he says, ‘Pray for those who persecute you’ (or, as it is rendered in Lk 6:28, ‘Pray for those who mistreat you’)."3 There have been several times in my life when I have been convicted of holding on to deep resentment of certain people whose words were hurting me. I knew that they were misjudging me, and my hyper-sensitivity would take it very seriously. When I finally began praying for each one, wanting the best for them, asking my Father to manage the situation and their perceptions, I would notice that the inner heat would begin to cool. I was learning, the hard way, how to stop focusing on my feelings and instead to care for their well-being. This is the goal of agape, the Greek word used for love in these instances. This definition in Danker’s Greek NT Lexicon makes it clear (bold letters are my way of underlining): "ἀγαπάω [etym. uncertain] – 1. of personal relationships, ‘have such an interest in another that one wishes to contribute to the other’s well-being’, have concern for, hold in esteem, love, of God’s affection for humanity J 3:16; Ro 8:37; hence in Jesus’ directive to his followers concerning enemies Mt 5:4" God sends his blessing on those who are good and those who are bad, Jesus pointed out, using sunshine and rain as examples. We live together, all peoples, on this earth, and are kept alive by these necessities of life. Yes, the world is broken, and there are also torrential rains that produce floods, and phases of burning heat that harm people and produce drought. It will not be that way when we are in the new earth someday, when every aspect of the world is transformed and God alone has dominion. But we do see his kindness shown both to his children and to those who dismiss him as irrelevant, when we consider how much he is providing for humanity. What can we do? We need to ask for this personal transformation in our own lives, learning through the empowerment of the Spirit how to answer insults with gentleness, and how to show love to those who disagree with us or are in totally “other” communities! This is the Jesus Way, and we his followers do not want to stray from his path.
1 Walter C. Kaiser Jr. et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 365.
2Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (Harper Collins Publishers: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 183.