“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)
There are few things more difficult than being opposed, especially when we are trying to follow the will of God. When you were a child, did you ever find a set of blocks and build a tower with them? And when you were just about to set the last block on the top of your tower or wall or house, can you remember another child coming over and knocking down your handiwork? How did that make you feel? Really angry, really sad, right?
I remember one Sunday sitting with a child in children’s church who just wanted to play by himself. We took a lot of time setting up a building together, and there was this other boy that made it his mission to come and destroy it. No matter how hard I tried to stop him, he found a way to come over and knock the blocks down. His fun that morning was in ruining our work.
As we set out to do the will of God, Jesus makes it clear, we will be opposed. It’s not a matter of if, but when. And what are we told to do in response? Love our enemies. On one level this doesn’t seem to make sense. Isn’t it just arming the devil to love those opposed to the work of God?
Why set out to do anything for God if someone can come along and attack and destroy that work? Then Jesus says I’ve got to love that enemy? Love for enemies is at the heart of the redemptive work of God in Christ. And Jesus means for us to take him seriously on this point. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer:
Heavenly Father, we come to you and ask that you make us eager to listen and obey. You know that we live in a world that is opposed to the Light of Love. Jesus promised that in this world we would have trouble. But then He said, “Be of good courage. I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33) So we ask that you grant us courage this day. In you we are overcomers! And your Love abides in us to accomplish this. Have your way in us completely. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Our Lord Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Let us take his words and let them sink deeply into us. In Leviticus 19:18 the Bible says, ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” And in Psalm 139:21, 22 it says, “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.”
As we consider how to love our enemies, first we have to ask ourselves the question, “Who is my neighbor and how do I love them as myself?” Or, in other words, the people that I share the land with, who are they to me? Am I “my brother’s keeper”? We cannot love our neighbors without careful, deliberate intention. We cannot just be alive, caring only for ourselves, and think that because we are not at war with our neighbor, we love them.
The second consideration in loving our enemies is, “Who am I in relation to my enemy?” Am I doing the will of God? Everything that God requires, He provides. The question is, am I seeking my own interests or the will of God? If I’m serving Jesus than the only enemies I have are Jesus’ enemies. Jesus loves his enemies and died for them to redeem them into the Kingdom.
I dare say that our first problem in loving our enemies is actually in defining our neighbors and then our enemies.
When I was a kid growing up I used to say to my sisters and to other kids in the neighborhood, “Jesus says I have to love you, so I do. But he didn’t say I had to like you, so I don’t.” It is often easy to set the hard teachings of Jesus aside, like this one, for our own comfort. Some people are more difficult to be around than others, we might say, so I’ll deal with them the best I can, but I don’t have to like them. That sentiment shows just how far we still have to go in loving Jesus.
Jesus didn’t say we’d always feel like loving. That’s not what love is all about. He said,
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”
I’m a firm believer in “greeting” all people because they have in them the image of God. What did it mean to greet or “salute” someone in Jesus and the Apostle Paul’s day? It meant addressing them with respect and honor by name. For Jesus’ disciples it meant that he knew them well and even gave them new names, like Simon, whom Jesus called Petra, or Rock. Paul would start and finish his letters like this, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And Jesus said, “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (vs. 47) This is why it is wrong to pick favorites among the people we serve. This is why it is wrong to treat others only the way they treat us, instead of “as we would want to be treated”, as Jesus said.
It is wrong because my neighbor is the person God has placed before me to humanize and greet. The image of God in them, as difficult as it may be to see, is a gift that I must not meet with derision. When I mistrust someone made in God’s image, the stranger, the alien in the land, my neighbor, I offend God, and it offends the image of God in me!
George MacDonald, the fiction writer, poet and pastor, said, “But the question must be put to each man by himself, “Is my neighbor indeed my enemy, or am I my neighbor’s enemy, and so take him to be mine? — awful thought! Or, if he be mine, am not I his? Am I not refusing to acknowledge the child of the kingdom within his bosom, so killing the child of the kingdom within my own?” Let us claim for ourselves no more indulgence than we give to him. Such honesty will end in severity at home and clemency abroad. For we are accountable for the ill in ourselves, and have to kill it; for the good in our neighbor, and have to cherish it. He only, in the name and power of God, can kill the bad in him; we can cherish the good in him by being good to it across all the evil fog that comes between our love and his good.”
So when you look someone in the eye and call them by name you are performing a great service for them. You are acknowledging the power of their presence, and acknowledging their very existence. Don’t you understand that we live in an age where people are afraid to look each other in the eye for fear of their safety? As vulnerable people, especially poor people, we need and yet are afraid of eye contact. We’re afraid of people getting too close to us. We’re certainly afraid of being touched or hugged. This is why it is so important that we do this for one another in church. Our strength comes from building each other up in the Lord.
When Jesus said that our Father in Heaven is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, we can rest assured that the Love of God is stronger than any evil system that perpetuates bitterness, hostility, and animosity. Our God delights in redeeming people from their sin and transforming them into loving persons who cannot become overcome by fear, suspicion, resentment or bitterness. He does this in us, not through heroic sentiment or the example of godly individuals, but through believers in community who demonstrate confession of sins, repentance, and healing forgiveness every day.
Left to myself I can never love my enemies, and neither should I. As a child of God I am not meant to be alone or do anything alone, and neither are you. Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19, NIV) and “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” (5:30) I have learned from other followers in Christ, including my Father and Mother, how to love my enemies. I’m not saying we’ve been perfect at it, but together we’ve learned not to be overcome by bitterness. My mother, Penny Rice, in an article she wrote for the New Life Zoa Free Paper, told her story:
“As 1990 came to a close, I found myself dealing with public criticism of our ministry by community leaders, financial setbacks personally and in our work, close friends who seemed to turn their backs on me, tragic disappointments among co-workers and the increasing problems of so many who had nowhere else to turn. The Grace of God that I had enjoyed swimming in during 1989 was abandoned as I allowed myself to succumb to fear and resentment…oh, how this bitter, weary heart of mine longed for a cure for its life-destroying disease…Fortunately for me, and all those who are sick with bitterness towards circumstances or people who have hurt them, there is a powerful cure for this deadly cancer. And this cure is effective even in the final stages of this disease. Here is the prescription:
‘Be gentle and forbearing with one another and, if one has a difference (a grievance or complaint) against another, readily pardoning each other; even as the Lord has [freely] forgiven you, so must you also [forgive].” (Col. 3:13, Amp.)
Jesus Christ, the One who paid for our sins by offering up His sinless body as a sacrifice on our behalf, said this: “For if you forgive people their trespasses [their [a]reckless and willful sins, [b]leaving them, letting them go, and [c]giving up resentment], your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses [their reckless and willful sins, leaving them, letting them go, and giving up resentment], neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15, Amp.)
Wow! It would be better to die from organic cancer with a clear conscience and forgiveness from God than to let my soul forever be tormented because of unforgiveness! How foolish it is to allow bitterness to fester inside for even one day. Many, who now reside behind prison bars because of one reckless act stemming from bitterness, are learning how true this Scripture is: “But if you have bitter jealousy (envy) and contention (rivalry, selfish ambition) in your hearts, do not pride yourselves on it and thus be in defiance of and false to the Truth.
This [superficial] wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual (animal), even devilish (demoniacal). For wherever there is jealousy (envy) and contention (rivalry and selfish ambition), there will also be confusion (unrest, disharmony, rebellion) and all sorts of evil and vile practices.” (James 3:14-16, Amp.)
Having been an observer throughout my life of the destruction that cancer can bring, I now rejoice that God has provided to all of us the cure for the most devastating of all cancers. If we forgive all the hurts in our hearts and rest in Jesus’ loving arms of forgiveness, you and I can truly say, “Ravaged by cancer….no more!”
She didn’t know as she penned this, that sixteen years later she would face another battle with bitterness and separation in marriage. She didn’t know that she would face cancer that would end in a holy Christian death. What she did know was that Jesus would lead her all the way—and he did! After much hard travail she and my father were reunited in their marriage and rededicated in their vows. She ended her life on this planet in love surrounded by her family who loved her. What more could any of us ask for? She faced our final enemy, death, with courage and gratitude.
For my part, I look back on that time as a touchstone for me. If God brought us through that, what can’t he bring us through? What won’t he bring us through? This was Paul’s confidence in Romans 8:31-39. “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In 1980, while performing the Mass on live radio, Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down in San Salvador. The year before he wrote: “If I have the joy of possessing heaven, I would not mind being in that heaven near to those who today declare themselves my enemies, because there we will not be enemies. I am never anyone’s enemy. But let those who without cause want to be my enemies be converted to love, and in love we shall meet in the blessedness of God.”
We have to face the fact, as Jesus did, that evil cannot be reasoned with. Our love and obedience to Jesus pose a threat in this world because they remind all those blinded by the devil that their rule is temporary. Their hatred cannot last forever. Their pride, money, fun, games, and popularity are as shallow as their memory. What really endures is love.
Let us pray: Lord, make me aware of neighbors, friends and enemies. Grant me the capacity to love my neighbor as well as my friends, but also give me the strength to love my adversary. Teach me to love myself so I can learn to love my enemy. Teach me to love without compromising my faith and principals. Help me to understand that there are those in this world who do not love me, do not respect me, do not care for me, and want to hurt me. Bless me with the wisdom to understand why my enemy does not love me. Grant me the ability to love my enemy without letting my enemy hurt me. Bless me to beat down my enemy, but to beat them down in love, without becoming my enemy! Teach me to respect my enemy even though they may not respect me. Teach me to be gracious and good, yet wise as a serpent with the gentleness of a dove! Help me to work to bring my enemies around to the table of peace. Encourage me not to settle for evil when good is what I should strive for. On that day when my enemy becomes as David would say, “My footstool”, help me not to gloat with insults and derision, but to welcome them as brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God. Through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior we pray. Amen (by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Hood, III)
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Chris Rice