I don’t think that I need to preach too hard on the importance of love. I’m sure that there are very few people who would argue that love is unimportant. A random search for quotes on love brought up such thoughts as:
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” – Mother Teresa
“Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” – Aristotle
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” – Jesus Christ
So love is important. We can agree on this. The challenge comes when we need to put it into practice. I can easily give mental assent to love is being important in general and central to Christianity in particular, but what does that actually look like?
When I think about the practical aspect of love, three questions come immediately to mind: 1) Who will get our love? 2) What does that love look like? and 3) How do we find the strength to love this way? All three of these questions are addressed in our Scripture passage.
Who Gets Love
Let us face it, there are some people that are very easy to love. I have no difficulty loving my wife and children. They are incredible and bring me such joy. Sometimes after telling the kids that I love them, they will respond with, “I know Dad, you tell us all the time.” That is good, I never want my family to doubt that I love them. I have to say that even my dog is easy to love. Not only is he well behaved, he senses when anyone in our family is having a rough time and seeks to comfort them. The cats? Well, they are another story.
There are people outside our family that are easy to love. While we might not verbalize that with an “I love you,” there are people that are easy to get along with. There are people who have similar interests, people who are kind and people who have such a positive attitude that it is a pleasure to be around them.
But there are other people. Yes, some people can be difficult to love. There are some people who are difficult to even tolerate. Sometimes it is because they have deliberately done something harmful and sometimes their personality just drags you down. We have to acknowledge that these people exist and that they are in our lives.
In our passage, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. There is a long tradition of love within the Old Testament. When Jesus elsewhere tells us to love God and love our neighbours, he is quoting from the Old Testament. But the emphasis on love was always on loving those who are easier to love. We love the people in our community, the people with the same values, the people we join together with in corporate worship. We love the lovable.
But Jesus makes it more difficult. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. We are to love those who hate us, curse us, mistreat us, slap us and takes from us. Jesus wants us to love the unlovable. This is very radical.
As I read this, I began to reflect on who our enemies are. When I say love your enemies, who or what comes to mind of that one you hope Jesus isn’t really serious about? For some it might be a group like ISIS or other terrorists who have acted to violently and who seek to create a culture of fear. It might be a violent criminal, especially one that has hurt a child. It could be a situation that was much more personal to you. You may be the victim of physical, sexual or emotional abuse. That person, whether a stranger or a family member is the enemy that you find unlovable.
All of these examples are important and we need to deal with them. But I fear that we could focus so much on these people that we neglect the harmless unlovable people? Between that group of people who are easy to love and that group that is very difficult to love, are the in-between people who are easy to discount. We may tolerate their presence until we get around the people we really care about. We might not think of them as enemies but they make our lives uncomfortable and sometimes unpleasant. I would suggest that Jesus wants us to love all people, no matter what their background, personality or life situation.
What Love Looks Like
All of this would be a lot easier if we could just agree to love people. If all we had to do is check off the box saying that we love all people. On the other hand, it feels almost impossible if what is required are emotional feelings. I don’t feel love toward terrorists and I’m sure most victims don’t feel love toward their abusers.
What Jesus teaches us in this passage something that falls into neither of these categories. What Jesus commands us to do is act in a loving way. Notice the action words that are used: do good, bless, pray, turn the cheek, give. It is all about doing.
But what about the feelings? Are we not being insincere if we treat a person in a living way but do not feel the love on the inside? Not at all. The problem is that we start with a mistaken definition when we define love as a feeling. It is nice when we feel love, but the feeling does not have to be there. What matters are the choices we make.
I want to focus on two things that Jesus says here. The first is the idea of turning the other cheek. This passage has been misunderstood and misused. Some Christians have used this as a proof text for people to remain in abusive relationships. Is your spouse abusing you? Let them hit you again and you will be honouring Jesus with your suffering. That is not what Jesus is saying here.
First of all, the striking of the cheek that spoken here is not a savage beating but rather a slap that is meant to show disrespect and insult. Secondly, the context of this saying is about the loving your enemies. Even if it was good to allow yourself to be abused, which it is not, it is not loving toward the abuser. If we are supposed to want the best for everyone, including our enemies, we should want them to cease to be abusive. Secondly, Jesus cares about us and does not want us to be treated in such a way.
I am not trying to get away from the hard message of this saying. We are expected to love our enemies, whether they hurt us emotionally or physically. But we can love them by removing ourselves from dangerous and unhealthy situations. You can love and bless and pray for people without putting yourself in immediate danger. We must take turning the other cheek seriously but we should also use wisdom with regard to the safety of ourselves and our families.
The second thing I want to talk about is the golden rule, that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Many have noted that a version of the golden rule is found in almost every religious and philosophical tradition. This should not surprise us as all truth is God’s truth. The golden rule is important no matter how often is borrowed or where is shows up.
There is one difference between what Jesus says here and most of the other versions that are out there. Many times the rule is found in the negative form, don’t do to others what you don’t want to be done to you. You don’t want someone to steal your dessert? Don’t steal other people’s dessert. But Jesus gives it to us in a positive form. It is not just about avoiding bad things, it is about being proactive in doing good things. Do you wish someone would should show up with a tasty dessert for you? Take some time and make dessert for someone else.
The golden rule is a very helpful guide for helping us to live a loving life Keep asking how you wish people would show love to you and start showing love in that way to others.
How Can We Love?
So we are to love everyone, including our enemies. And not only are we to agree with the idea of love, we are supposed to actually put it into action. How do we do this? There is an interesting motivational speech put out by a famous actor. It is basically him yelling at the camera, “JUST DO IT!” Is that all there is? Do we just yell at ourselves to do it?
Jesus concludes this section with a command to be merciful as our Father is merciful. Not just his Father, even though as the Son of God he is unique. It is our Father and when we do what God has done, we reveal ourselves as children of the heavenly Father. This is the same line of teaching that John uses in 1 John, which is heavily focused on the role of love for the Christian. What we are taught is that there is meant to be a family resemblance between the Heavenly Father and his children on Earth. We should be seeking to emulate him, but this comes not with our own effort. This takes place by cultivating our relationship with God through worship, prayer and Scripture. As we seek to draw closer to God, we should see a greater capacity to show love.
Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Those are all the things that we need to love those unlovable people. How do we get them? Being the fruit of the Spirit, these things are the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our life. We can not make it happen, but we can seek a life in which there is room for such fruit to grow.
I do need to say that we are not given any excuses to refuse love. We cannot say to that annoying person, I would like to show love to you but the Holy Spirit has not gotten that far yet. We should be doing what we can to act on love and to develop our relationship with God at the same time. We will find that our relationship with God will make our human relationships easier and showing love to people will deepen our relationship with God. We should not get hung up on which came first, the chicken or the egg. We just need to jump into a life of love.
Love your enemies. How could Jesus ask us to do something like this? Doesn’t he know how hard it is to love our enemies? Judas betrayed Jesus and Peter denied Jesus three times. And that is just within his small group of followers! What about the religious leaders who deliberately tried to cause him problems? What about the Romans that nailed him to the cross and executed him in a painful and humiliating manner? What Saul of Tarsus, who dedicated himself to persecuting the followers of Jesus? I think Jesus has some understanding of what it means to love his enemies.
What does it mean for us? This is not a suggestion by Jesus. When he says, “I tell you who hear me,” he means that he really expects his followers to do this. Love your enemies. I want you to take a moment to think about your enemies. Who is that one person or group of people that is hardest for you to love? Get that picture in your head. Then take a moment to think what actions you can take to make that love happen. Do not worry about emotions or how you feel. What can you do? I will say that praying for the person is the easiest place to start. Not praying for God’s wrath but praying blessings upon them, even if they are unrepentant for what they have done or are doing. Keep praying for them and you will likely experience a change within you. Be prepared for opportunities to bless them. Treat them with the golden rule, do what you wish they would do for you. Love your enemies.