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Love Your Enemies

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“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Matthew 5:43-48.

Love can mean so many things. I might say, “I love my wife,” or “I love my kids,” or “I love tacos.” In each instance I mean something different by “love.” So what does Jesus mean by “love” when he commands his disciples to love their enemies? I think this passage offers some clues.

I have written elsewhere that the core of love is respect. By that I do not mean esteem. Respect does not have to regard a fellow person as good, but it must regard them as a person, capable of making decisions, keeping promises, and adhering however imperfectly to their own standards of right and wrong. Love regards every person as bearing the stamp of their Creator. Since every person is made in God’s image, there is within each one a template for being the person God intended. Love seeks to activate that template. Love is an advocate for the image of God within each person. Of course, there are some people who seems to us irredeemably evil, the image within them so fractured and tarnished by willful rebellion that every kindness, every good turn, seems wasted on them. Yet it is not often up to us to make that determination. Jesus calls us to love even the most wicked, not with affection or admiration, but with respect for their humanity. He calls us to treat them with the same impartial kindness that God has toward both the evil and the good, giving sunshine and rain to both, neither favoring the good with better weather nor punishing the wicked with darkness and drought.

This call goes against our own inclination and even against our sense of fair play. Should not the wicked be punished? Should not the righteous be blessed? Should we not love those who love us and hate those who hate us? How can we uphold justice in the world without opposing those who cause injustice? Indeed, we must oppose injustice yet do so in love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a sermon about loving your enemies, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” So if we want a more just world, love is imperative; we have no option but to return love for hate.

So far this has been theoretical. How do we apply it to real enemies? How do we apply it to President Donald Trump?

I would like to propose a few guidelines by which you can measure your own behavior to consider whether it is loving. Most of us are unlikely to be in a position to actually do anything of real value for Trump or anyone in his administration. We all have attitudes and opinions, however, which we express with words. Our words reflect what is in our hearts. If it is love, then our words, even toward the President and his associates, will be loving.

The Issues, Not The Man

Stop ad hominem attacks. This includes name-calling and character assassination. Every day I see posts on my feed, not just memes but well-researched, thoughtful articles about Trump’s policies (or lack thereof), yet the comments are nothing but acrimonious names or supposed descriptions of Trump. I see him called “idiot,” “piece of shit,” “knuckle-dragger,” and  “orange cheeto,” I see speculations on the size of his brain or whether he has testicles. There is no way that such remarks can be construed as loving. You may be angry at Trump’s policies, his shameful behavior, or his many, many lies. Fine. Attack his policies and behavior, and expose his lies. It is loving to correct error and declare the truth. It is loving to advocate for the oppressed and excoriate their oppression. It is not loving to denigrate the oppressor.

Wish Him Well

Some Facebook friends have expressed a wish that Trump would die or fall ill or be declared unfit to serve as President. Some have hoped he would be assassinated. Such desires do not spring from love but from hate. Jesus implied that hate was the moral equivalent of murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Love never rejoices at the misfortunes that befall an enemy. It is unfailingly kind. Of course, the best one can wish for an enemy is a sufficient change to make them a friend. I do not know if Trump is capable of such a change, nor does it seem likely, but it is something to pray for.

Pray For Him

By this I mean sincere prayers for wisdom in governing, decorum befitting a President, and all the other graces and competencies that would make him a better President and mitigate the ridicule to which he is subject. Of course, a certain amount of ridicule goes with being President. When Obama was President, he even made fun of himself. Trump, however, desperately needs a sense of humor, and that is surely something to pray for. I know it’s hard not to want him to fail, but failure is not bad just for him; it’s bad for the United States and even for the world. So pray for his success—not the success of bad policies, but for wise policies to succeed. Pray that he will take his duties seriously and consider the repercussions of his words and actions before tweeting.

Of course, there are other things you might do, but these should give you an idea of the direction love wants to go. Love your enemies.

 

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Peter’s Reinstatement

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Peter was downcast after the initial joy of Jesus’ resurrection. He couldn’t forget that he had denied Jesus after boasting of his loyalty. Even though Jesus had anticipated his desertion, Peter knew he could no longer expect to be part of the new kingdom Jesus told them about. Like the other disciples, he still expected Jesus to seize power, oust the Romans, and make Israel great again. But for Peter there would no longer be a place at court on Jesus’ right or left hand. He had failed in the time of trial. He had proved disloyal and untrustworthy.

Peter still knew how to fish. So he returned to what he knew, and some of the other disciples went with him. Though not plagued with the same sense of failure, they did not know what was going to happen, and they needed to work to occupy their hands and thoughts. They spent the night fishing but caught nothing. In the morning, they saw Jesus standing on the shore of the lake, but they did not realize it was him.

Friends,” he called to them. “Don’t you have any fish.”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because there were so many fish.

Then John said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were only about 100 yards from shore. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish already on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

After they ate, Jesus took Peter aside and asked him, “Peter, do you love me more than these?”

Yes, of course, Lord,” said Peter. “You know that I love you.”

Feed my lambs,” said Jesus. Then he asked again, “Peter, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord. You know that I love you,” Peter replied.

“Take care of my sheep,” said Jesus. Then he asked yet again, “Peter, do you like me?”

Peter was hurt that the Lord had asked the third time, “Do you like me?” He thought back on the years they had spent together, the wonders he had seen this man do, the conviction that had inexorably stolen over his heart that this man was somehow God. He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I like you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old, you will feel your way, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Then he said to him in that no-nonsense tone Peter knew so well, “Follow me!”

Could it be true? Was Jesus really telling him that he still had a place for him? Wasn’t there someone else better suited to the task Jesus had in mind. He could see John obviously eavesdropping nearby. “What about him?” he asked Jesus.

If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Jesus replied.

Then Peter knew. He knew beyond doubt. Jesus had urged all the disciples to believe in him, and Peter had. His faith in Jesus had saved him, but what transformed him was Jesus’ faith in him.

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Taking God Literally

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Listening to the gospel of John over the past couple of days it struck me how often Jesus was misunderstood and how little he did to make himself clear. Moreover, those who misunderstood him almost always did so through taking what he said literally. When he drove the moneychangers out of the temple, he told his critics, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it.”

“This building has been under construction for 46 years, but you will rebuild it in 3 days?”

Not even his disciples understood him. John lets his readers know what it all meant, but in doing so, he lets slip that no one got it until after Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus makes no effort to explain that he was talking about the temple of his body, but it became a part of Paul’s teaching later on.

Later, Nicodemus reveals his own ignorance in taking Jesus’ talk about being born again as a literal rebirth. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus has to break it down for him. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, and spirit gives birth to spirit.” He was talking about a spiritual birth that would open Nicodemus’ eyes to spiritual truth. Paul picks up on this too.

The woman at the well supposes that the living water Jesus talks of giving her will make daily trips to the well unnecessary. He has to explain to her that he is talking about something spiritual. He tells her that God is on the look out for people who will worship him “in spirit and in truth” rather than worshiping in a particular place—and by doing so segregating themselves into “mountain worshipers” and “temple worshipers.”

A couple of chapters further on, Jesus tells the crowds following him that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. To make matters worse, he sounds as if he wants to be taken literally: “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink,” he explains. What kind of crazy talk is this? Is Jesus recommending cannibalism? Many disciples abandon Jesus at this point. They can’t make sense of what he is saying. But the Twelve stick with him, not because they understand him any better, but because they trust him anyway.

Again and again, Jesus says things that his hearers try to shoehorn into a literal interpretation. Again and again, Jesus either leaves them to try and work it out for themselves or patiently explains that he’s talking about spiritual things. When Philip insists that Jesus show them the Father, Jesus sounds really disappointed. You can almost hear him say, “Really, Phil? I’ve been showing you the Father this whole time. How can you even say that?”

Even when he is facing Pilate, Jesus continues to use metaphorical language, although he is careful to explain it to the gentile.

So, what does all this mean? I think it calls into question how much we really understand of God’s word when we insist on taking it literally. Jesus insisted that God’s word is true, but the truth he was interested in was not whether 2 million Israelites could really survive in the desert for 40 years or whether Jonah could really survive for three days in the belly of a big fish. No, the truth he was interested in was the revelation of God’s character: his love and faithfulness and righteousness. The truth that the world needs to hear is that God loves them and has good plans for them if they will only turn from trying to do everything themselves and making a mess of things. They don’t need to hear our unscientific theories about how God could have created the world in a literal six days. They need to hear Jesus say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

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