The basis for loving our neighbor and our enemy is being able to accept them as children of God with inherent worth. It’s not an easy assignment. To help us there is much to learn from Jesus and the apostles of the early church.
Good in Everyone
Basically the matter of acceptance goes back to the two creation stories in Genesis. In the first version in Genesis 1 “God saw everything he had made, and it was supremely good” (Genesis 1:31). The second version in Genesis 2 and 3 describes the fall of Adam and Eve and eviction from the Garden of Eden. Later theologians claimed that this demonstrated the inherent sinfulness of humankind.
Although there is no record of Jesus discussing Genesis, from his life and teachings we can surmise that Jesus believed in the innate goodness of everyone. He was certainly aware of human weaknesses. Yet he looked for the potential that lay beneath the surface in common people, in those judged to be sinners, in persons of authority who misused their power. He was willing to associate with persons who polite society and religious authorities rejected. He recognized their inherent worth as children of God.
Early in Jesus ministry he called Levi, a tax collector for the Roman occupation, to be a disciple. He then had dinner at his house along with “many tax collectors and sinners” (Mark 2:14-17). Months later as Jesus passed through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, rich but small of stature, climbed a tree to see him. “Come down at once,” Jesus called to him, “I must stay at your home today” (Luke 19:1-10).
On another occasion he accepted a dinner invitation from Simon, a Pharisee. A woman, known as a sinner according to Luke’s account, entered with an alabaster jar of ointment. In spite of Simon’s objection, she bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed his feet with the ointment (Luke 7:36-50).
In Jerusalem before the temple where Jesus was teaching, scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery. They reminded Jesus that the law of Moses required them to stone her. Jesus told them, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.” Beginning with the elders the crowd dispersed. Noting that no one had condemned her by casting a stone, Jesus told her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore” (John 8:2-11).
Although some Pharisees criticized Jesus for not adhering to all points of ancient law and ritual, he never refused to engage them in discussion. By night he received Nicodemus, a powerful Pharisee, who praised him. They had a conversation about being born again by the Spirit (John 3:1-8).
Jesus healed numerous persons of many different backgrouds. He revived the daughter of Jarius, a leader of a synagogue, who came to Jesus saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live” (Mark 5:22-24, 35-43). At Cana in Galilee where at the wedding feast Jesus changed water into wine, he provided a long distant cure for a royal official’s son (a Gentile) who lay ill in Capernaum (John 4:46-59. He also healed the servant of a centurion, an officer of the occupying Roman army who had 100 soldiers under his command (Matthew 8:5-13).
Traveling along the border between Samaria and Galilee, Jesus cured a Samaritan of leprosy (Luke 17:11-19). On another occasion Jesus broke a taboo by speaking to a Samarian woman at a well, she who had had five husbands and was living with a man who wasn’t her husband. He told her that “the time is coming—and is here—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those to worship him” (John 4:4-26). And of course it was a Samaritan, a people many Jews despised, who was the hero of Jesus’ well known story of a man who had mercy on a roadside robbery victim (Luke 10:30-37).
This is a small sample of how Jesus associated with all rungs of society. He accepted them as they were, for he saw both their inherent worth and their potential.
We can see Jesus’ recognition of human potential in the New Testament account of how he selected ordinary men to become his closest disciples.
Going along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two fishermen casting their nets, the brothers Simon and Andrew. “Follow me,” Jesus called out, “and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Farther along he gave the same invitation to James and John. They left their father Zebedee in the boat with hired men and followed Jesus (Mark 1:16-20). No interview, no job description, no checking references, no security clearance. Just “follow me.”
In the months that followed their shortcomings showed up. Peter, as Simon became known, was often impulsive. On the Mount of Transfiguration he wanted to build tabernacles for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus when that wasn’t the point (Luke 9:28-36). At the Last Supper he vowed that he would never desert Jesus, then denied him three times (Matthew 26:31-35, 69-75). In Gethsemane he drew a sword and cut off a servant’s ear only to have Jesus reprimand him (John 18:10-11; Matthew 26:51-52).
James and John were so self-centered that they tried to get ahead of the other disciples. In Mark’s account they approached Jesus privately and asked to have places of honor in the future kingdom (Mark 10:35-41). In Matthew’s version they had their mother make this request (Matthew 20:20-23).
As noted, Jesus saw Levi, also known as Matthew, sitting in a tax booth and invited him to join the disciples (Mark 2:14). After Jesus called Phillip to become a disciple, Phillip invited his friend Nathaniel to join him. Nathaniel skeptically inquired, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:43-51)
During his three years of ministry Jesus repeatedly warned his disciples about the fate that awaited him in Jerusalem. But they didn’t want to believe him. Peter tried to talk him out of it (Matthew 16:21-23).
Judas from Iscariot, trusted as treasurer, betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-15).
After Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane only Peter was brave enough to follow him to Caiaphas’ house where Jesus was interrogated and tortured. But then Peter refused to acknowledge that he was a follower of Jesus (Luke 22:54-62).
Gospel accounts vary according on who showed up when Jesus was crucified. Matthew and Mark report that some women watched from a distance (Matthew 27:55-56; Mark 15:40). Luke indicates that “everyone who knew him” (presumably including his disciples) joined the women for this distant view (Luke 23:49). The Gospel of John places “the disciple whom he loved”, Jesus’ mother, and some other women nearby the cross (John 19:25-27). But on the whole the disciples’ courage failed them at this crucial moment.
Although Jesus had told about his resurrection in advance, Thomas wouldn’t take the word of other disciples. He wanted physical proof (John 20:24-29).
Yet after the Holy Spirit came to them at Pentecost the disciples displayed the full potential that Jesus saw in them. They did marvelous works, suffered for Jesus’ sake, never lacked courage, rejected violence, and loved their foes just as Jesus had taught them. They fulfilled the potential that Jesus recognized.
We, too, for all of our shortcomings have the potential to follow Jesus’ teachings as we seek to live in God’s kingdom.
We can offer acceptance to everyone we meet for their intrinsic worth. They like us are all children of God: young and old, rich and poor, popular and unpopular, nice and nasty, liberals and conservatives, immigrants and native residents, Christians of different denominations, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists.
We can welcome everyone to our worship services regardless of race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other traits.
We can show compassion for persons in need. We can work for justice for all.
We can be loving in our personal relationships. Knowing our own weaknesses and wrongdoings, we can forgive those who wrong us.
When we perceive our enemies as children of God, it changes our perspective. We can love them and respond to their attacks with nonviolence. Doing so, we have the potential of awakening the inherent good in them. But even if awakening doesn’t occur instantly, we can act with our highest standards because God expects this of us. We all have that potential.