If one were to do some online research using “examples of loving your enemy” as the search phrase, you wouldn’t find many to choose from. Loving one’s enemy isn’t something we’re good at right now. Some examples can be found in the distant past, such as World War II or the Civil War – there’s lots of data from wars. But apparently, in 21st century America, most “what’s in it for me?” Americans are not into loving their enemies. There’s very little return on investment.
Go back to WWII and you can find the story about Luftwaffe pilot Franz Stigler. While piloting a German fighter, he refused to shoot down a crippled American bomber flying over Germany and trying to get back to England. The 21-year-old American pilot, Charlie Brown, was on his first mission. His crew were wounded or dead. His plane was riddled with bullet holes.
Stigler saw that they were in trouble and felt that bringing the plane down would be murder. Instead, he escorted them to safety and peeled off, after saluting Brown. Decades later, the two pilots met in a well-publicized friendly encounter.
Or you might run across the account of the Japanese soldier who gave back a graduation ring belonging to American prisoner of war Mario “Motts” Tonelli, a former professional football player. The Japanese officer had studied in America and seen Motts play. According to one report, he said, “You were a hell of a player,” as he handed the ring back to his prisoner. “Good luck.”
But to find common, mundane examples of people loving their enemies today can be difficult, although not impossible. Perhaps there are such stories locally that never go viral, or that don’t hit Facebook or TikTok.
So, there are outliers. You might read inspirational stories of Lebanese Christians loving their Syrian enemies, or of collaboration between various Palestinian and Jewish artistic groups.
Occasionally, you read about unlikely friendships, such as the one between Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. You might also pause to consider the friendship between the Obamas and the Bushes, and especially President Bush and Michelle Obama joshing around. And you might remember the banter between President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill.
But many would also agree that sometimes the United States can be described as a nation of enemies, a nation at war with itself or a house divided, as Lincoln put it. There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t have an enemy and probably more than one. Here is a short list of some battle lines:
- Vaxxers vs. anti-vaxxers
- Maskers vs. anti-maskers
- Republicans vs. Democrats
- Liberals vs. conservatives
- Vegans vs. carnivores
- Rich vs. middle class
- Rural vs. urban
This list doesn’t even account for multifaceted issues such as race and climate change, and when you have this many battalions positioned against enemies, things can get ugly. It is legitimate to ask: “With everything that divides us, what in the world is holding us together?”
Good question. But you might respond by saying, “Well, the people on your list are not really my enemies. True, they’re never going to be my BFFs, but it’s not like I’m going to take out their kneecaps or something.”
Maybe not, but the mayhem does happen. And don’t even pretend that you love your enemies – “you” being Joe and Jane Q. Public. You drink “haterade” every day and put a hating on your enemies that makes Harry and Meghan dissing the royals on Oprah look like a lovefest. You don’t like some people, you may fear them, you could hate them, you’d never break bread with them, you’d be uncomfortable if your children played with their children and so on. In short, those who could never be your friends are your enemies or at least “unfriendlies” and, honestly, you might even think they’re all going to hell.
And let’s not forget the people with whom we don’t get along at the office, or in our neighborhood, or – gasp – in church! There’s the guy who lets his dog bark at all hours of the night, and those people with six cars in their yard, at least half of them jacked up and missing a wheel. There’s the colleague who seems to argue with you at every staff meeting, a boss so arrogant she makes Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada look like Mother Teresa, and a nerdy creep who keeps asking you out. These people are not loveable.
Well … yes, they are loveable.
They might not be likeable. But they’re loveable. God loves them; Jesus loves them. And yes, you’re not God or Jesus, but the point is made. They are loveable. We just need to find out how to do it.
This brings us to a section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Luke: “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Note that Jesus says, “Pray for those who abuse you,” not “Stay with those who abuse you.”)
When Jesus says that we should love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us, we might agree and nod our heads, and concede that this would be a good thing. It’s part of our creed. The idea of loving the unlovable is a thread that has been woven into the fabric of our religious attire since we were old enough to recite “God is love” (1 John 4:7).
But the harsh truth is that we have a hard time believing it. And further, it is fair to say that most Christians don’t practice loving their enemies.
This might be true for the following reasons: Unlike contemporaries of Jesus, we may not run into enemies to love – the list above notwithstanding. We have no trouble identifying the people who are on the road to perdition, but we avoid them and therefore we don’t really know them. We have done our best to build walls around our personal lives so that we’re protected from what we see as wicked people with evil, insidious lifestyles and beliefs. This may account for forgetting to be proactive about seeking enemies to love; not too high on our list of priorities.
We also may actually disagree with Jesus on this point, arguing that loving our enemies enables and encourages them. We prefer the quid pro quo approach and cannot afford to give “with no expectation of return” (v. 35). It is a nice sentiment, but loving enemies is not the way the world works, and we have to live in the real world, not in a make-believe world of upside-down ethics.
At the heart of all of these excuses are two huge misconceptions about what Jesus is asking us to do. The first is about idealism and realism, and the second is about love.
It isn’t hard to argue that Jesus was a star-gazing, impractical idealist who did not have His feet on the terra firma of real life or the quid pro quo of realpolitik. The Creed tells us that Jesus was both human and divine, so this already puts Him in the category of someone unusual. And then there’s the fact that He was sinless, and we are not.
His ideals are simply that – something to strive for, but never actually achieve. Because the moment we achieve an ideal, it ceases to be an ideal. It’s now in the realm of the possible. What Jesus is proposing is certainly ideal, but it’s not real, that is, it’s not in the realm of the possible. And, by the way, His radical idea(l)s got Him crucified.
This is how the argument goes.
But – as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr might say – perhaps we need the idealists of the world to prod the rest of us underachievers to accomplish something that would otherwise be beyond our grasp. Without idealists pushing us to be better versions of ourselves, we’d settle for far less than is possible.
The inconvenient truth is that we can actually love people we perceive as going-to-hell reprobates. This is possible because Jesus is only asking us to take one action at a time. Everything He suggests (as examples) involves a concrete, positive action. Simple. We can love our enemies, one act of kindness at a time.
This is why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a sermon in Montgomery, Ala., that “far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.”
It might appear that Jesus is asking us to act altruistically. But He’s not. True, He says that we must not give or lend with any “expectation of return.” But a closer reading of the text reveals that Jesus unabashedly appeals to our innate greed. Consider this: Jesus urges us to love our enemies, because there is no glory or credit in loving our friends or those who can help us (see vv. 32-34). Yet, Jesus explicitly tells us that if we want some kind of “credit” or glory, we should try loving our enemies, because if we do, there will be a huge payoff: “Great will be your reward in heaven” (v. 35).
It’s an odd statement because the sentence reads, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High.” In other words, love your enemies and don’t expect anything in return (from them), but you’re going to get a huge bonus once you arrive at the pearly gates. When Saint Peter opens the book of life, there’s going to be a notation that reads: “This person is a child of the Most High,” and this will be followed by instructions concerning fiduciary arrangements for your “reward.”
So, when we love our enemies, there is a payoff! At the very least, we get a good feeling, we can congratulate ourselves on being faithful to the ideals of our faith, and we might get peace, knowledge and understanding. Every good action we perform has possible positive outcomes.
This sounds very practical. Therefore, it is a common misconception that Jesus was out of touch with the real world. Jesus absolutely knew how the world operates!
Jesus is speaking to the farmers and other members of the working class who’ve gathered on the sloping hills of northern Galilee to hear what this local boy from Nazareth has to say. When He says, “Love your enemies,” He is obviously not speaking of love in a sexual sense nor even an affectionate one. He says, “love your enemies.” He most certainly does not say, “Like your enemies.”
His understanding of love has nothing to do with sex or friendship. This is agape love, and this is at the heart of a general principle that is immediately made specific and active. It is “love” only because it is actively pursuing good for the enemy. “Do good,” Jesus commands. He doesn’t say, “think good thoughts or have good feelings,” but actually, “do good to those who hate you.”
Love, then, looks somewhat different when seen through the eyes of Jesus. It looks unreasonable, especially when the Lord proposes a four-fold approach to demonstrate what He means:
- Love them
- Do some good on them
- Bless them
- Pray for them
Okay, now Jesus has crossed the line. One might be able to make an argument for doing good. Most people can muster up the effort to create positive actions that promote even an enemy’s wellbeing. But bless the enemy? Pray for the enemy? This is totally unreasonable. This requires an attitude adjustment of the heart. This is much more difficult than providing a cloak when a soldier has lost his.
But this is the central demand of Jesus’ moral universe: Love unreasonably.
Whereas the Qumran commune that existed beside the Dead Sea in Jesus’ day was taught to “hate all the sons of darkness,” Jesus, on the other hand, demands nothing less than perfect, divine love. Rather than loving the lovely one, Jesus calls on us to love, bless and pray for the unlovely one, as unreasonable as that may sound.
As if to underscore the impudent nature of God’s graciousness, Jesus refers to the practice of buying and selling in the marketplace in the last verse of today’s pericope. “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (v. 38). Merchants weren’t inclined to “press down” or “shake together” measurements in order to give a buyer more than they paid for.
But this is precisely what God does and how God’s grace works. In God’s unreasonable love and extravagance, the “good measure” is poured until it is “running over.” This is what God wants to do for us, Jesus says, but only if we do likewise for our enemies.
Jesus calls us to do the impossible, not the possible. Jesus calls us to do the improbable, not the probable. Jesus calls us to do the unreasonable, not the reasonable.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Yes, Jesus calls us to love unreasonably, not to hate reasonably. Amen.