We humans like our “boxes.” We like them so much that we even put people in them. It makes social life simpler and more predictable. There are in-groups and out-groups, friends and enemies.
And then Jesus comes along and has the audacity to stomp all over our boxes. Of all the things he taught, few were more challenging than the idea that we should actually love our enemies:
You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Matt 5:43-48, CEB)
“You have heard that it was said”: the people had already been taught other ideas. Loving God had been made into a righteous justification for our boxes. Our neighbors are those who think and believe as we do; everyone else is our enemy. And faithfulness means loving the former and hating the latter.
Jesus’ message to his Jewish hearers was this: If that’s how you think, then you might as well be a tax collector or a Gentile, because that’s how they think. (That should have captured their attention.) You want to claim God as your Father? Then act like your Father: love everyone, including those you consider to be your enemies.
And lest we forget, Jesus himself made good on that teaching from the cross, as he prayed to his Father to forgive the men who put him there. Such words and deeds of Jesus, I believe, stand in the background of Paul’s teaching that love is kind.
As suggested in an earlier post, when Paul says that love is kind, I believe he is pointing us first to God’s love for humanity. And what is kindness? Again, it’s not just generic niceness. An act is kind when it’s done with compassion and the intent to benefit the other.
Loving your enemies, then, is more than tolerating them with gritted teeth. It’s more than restraining vengeance.
It’s doing good.
The God who is love (1 John 4:8), after all, sends the sun to shine on everyone, righteous or unrighteous, and the rain to grow their crops. That doesn’t necessarily mean we must put ourselves in the line of fire or submit to abuse. But as Jesus says concretely, it does mean praying for our enemies. Not praying to God for their downfall, but praying for their good.
Who is your “enemy”? What have they done to get in that box?
Your anger or resentment may be just, as is God’s wrath toward all sin, both ours and everyone else’s. But God is also love. If we claim to be his children, then we must learn to show a family resemblance. In love, we must be kind. In kindness, we must do good to our enemies.
And whatever else that might mean, it begins with prayer.