Love your enemies

This past presidential election will probably go down as one of the most contentious in our nation’s history, dividing even the church along partisan lines. So here’s the question: did we as Christians act in a way that bolstered our reputation for godly love?

I hope so. But mostly, probably not.

. . .

What is godly love, anyway? The love of one’s enemies. The love Jesus demonstrated on the cross, praying even for those who had nailed him there. The crucifixion made good on what Jesus had taught in the Sermon on the Mount:

     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)

Who needs to be taught to love their neighbor and hate their enemy? Jesus himself seems to describe it as the most natural thing in the world. But “you have heard that it was said” suggests that the people had been taught that this common inclination was both godly and biblical. In practical terms, they probably believed that they should love their fellow Jews, but hate Gentiles, because Gentiles were the enemies of God.

Bible scholars are quick to point out that nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures are people actually commanded to hate their enemies. Nowhere.

But Psalm 139 comes awfully close.

. . .

As we’ve seen, the poet who wrote Psalm 139 isn’t shy of declaring hatred for God’s enemies: “Don’t I hate everyone who hates you? Don’t I despise those who attack you? Yes, I hate them—through and through! They’ve become my enemies too” (vss. 21-22). The declaration is a personal one, and part of a poem. It’s not a commandment.

But it carries the authority of Scripture, the inspired word of God, doesn’t it?

Yes. That’s not the question. The question is what people do with the inspired word of God. Because if Psalm 139 and similar texts are behind Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5, then he’s telling the people — with the authority of God Incarnate himself — that their teachers have used the word of God in a way that contradicts the love of God.

Consider, for example, the way the Jerusalem leadership mocked Jesus as he hung dying on the cross: “He trusts in God, so let God deliver him now if he wants to” (Matt 27:43). These words express the theological worldview of the Psalms — and they’re being used to mock the very God the psalmists worship, the God who had come to his people in the flesh.

Believers may be tempted to take verses like those in Psalm 139 out of context and use them for their own purposes. The immediate context is one of an intimate and worshipful relationship with God — so intimate that the psalmist’s soul is willingly laid open for examination. Who among us is willing to be so bold? One only dares to pray such a prayer when transparency, humble listening, and penitence are already an established part of the relationship.

And in a larger context, if we believe Jesus to be divine, we must allow him to correct our readings of Scripture, just as he corrected what his hearers had been taught. There’s no ambiguity here. As God’s children, we are called to show a family resemblance. And one way we do that is by loving our enemies.

In short, we cannot claim to follow this Jesus and also claim to have biblical warrant for our hatred.

But shouldn’t we, like the psalmist, hate what God hates, like sin and injustice?

We should indeed be angry at every form of injustice; but we must remember that we too have behaved unjustly. We should pray not for revenge but for righteousness to reign.

And we must always, always look to the example of Jesus. There have been people in my life with whom I’ve disagreed, and generally, I’m pretty sure that I’m right and they’re wrong. There have been people who have hurt me, and sometimes, I’ve wanted to hurt them back.

But here’s the thing: I’m no innocent. I’m not sinless. And if the sinless savior of the world can love those who are cruelly and unjustly driving nails into his flesh, where can I go with my anger or hatred?

To him, I guess. And I like to think that, given the chance, the psalmist would do the same.