In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount love for enemy is the last of six propositions that transform ancient law by bringing it to a higher level. The others deal with murder, adultery, divorce, oath taking, and retaliation.
Jesus tells his disciples and other listeners not only do not commit murder, one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13), but don’t even get angry with your brother or sister (Matthew 5:21-22). Rather seek reconciliation. His example is to make things right with your brother and sister before offering your gift at the altar (Matthew 5:23-26). There are many other ways.
Regarding retaliation, Jesus instructs:
You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth [Leviticus 24:20]. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you (Matthew 5:38-39).
This is the translation of the Common English Bible. The King James Version puts it: “That ye resist not evil.” In the New Revised Standard Version it is: “Do not resist an evildoer.” The Scholar’s Version states, “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.” Walter Wink has indicated that a proper translation would be: “Do not retaliate against violence with violence” (Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Fortress Press, 2003. p. 11).
The latter is more appropriate than the passivism suggested by “do not resist evil.” Certainly Jesus himself was far from passive in confronting his adversaries in Galilee, during his journey to Jerusalem, in the temple there and when arrested, interrogated, and crucified. Rather he responded in a loving, nonviolent manner.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus provides simple illustrations of positive responses as alternatives to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” saying that
- you must not oppose those who want to hurt you.
- If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.
- When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.
- When they force you to go one mile, go with them two.
- Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you (Matthew 5:39-41).
This sets the stage for Jesus’ revolutionary pronouncement. Rather than hate your enemy, “love your enemies and pray for those who harass you” (Matthew 5:44).
Love for enemy for Jesus is grounded in the belief that all of us, friend and foe alike, are children of God who “makes his sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and unrighteous” (Mathew 5:45b). In Luke’s version Jesus says, “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). Therefore, we too should be kind and compassionate to everyone, even those we consider to be our enemies.
Jesus further instructs, “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:43-48). This is the Common English Bible translation. Other versions translate this verse as “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” We recognize that God loves us. God loves others, too. When we also love others, including our enemies, we complete the circle. A kind of perfection.
Apostle Paul. Jesus teachings to not retaliate but rather love your enemy became ingrained in his disciples and the apostles of the early church. Thus, Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome (Romans 12:9-21):
- Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of our family.
- Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them.
- Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.
- If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.
- Don’t try to get revenge for yourself, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written. Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord [Deuteronomy 32:35].
- Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head [Proverbs 25:21-22].
- Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.
When Paul mentioned “God’s wrath”, he incorporated his knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures that speak often of God’s wrath. He noted that this is God’s business and not an assignment for human beings. Scholars offer many interpretations of “burning coals of fire,” such as burning incense in an atonement ritual or causing pangs of pain that can lead to change.
As we seek to love our enemies as part of living in God’s kingdom on earth, we need a mindset that orients us in this direction Accordingly in our prayer on awakening each day—“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice in it. Let me love everyone I meet today.”—we can add: “Especially give me the strength to love my enemies.” Or substitute “adversaries” if “enemies” seems too harsh for you.
King’s advice. To help us along our way we can heed the advice offered by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his sermon on “Loving Your Enemies.” It was first given at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in November 1957 during the bus boycott and later revised when he was in a Georgia jail. Responding to the question “how do we love our enemies?”, King stated:
First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.
Second, we must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy.
Third, we must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win his friendship and understanding….Every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate (Strength to Love. Harper & Row, 1963. pp. 35-36).
Forgiveness. On another page we explore the importance of forgiveness for living in God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus taught and practiced forgiveness. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, asked for forgiveness for those who stoned him to death. The apostle Paul taught forgiveness. Forgiveness can have a positive effect on both the wrongdoer and on the person who forgives. And so forgiveness is a significant element for loving our enemies.
We can emulate Jesus who prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). We should do this even if we believe that our enemies really know what they are doing. As King indicated in his sermon, “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.” He also said, “Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again” (King, p. 35).
Inherent goodness. King’s proposition that an element of goodness can be found in everyone picks up ideas we consider on a page on acceptance. All of us, friend and foe alike, are children of God. They, like us, have strengths and weaknesses. We may quarrel with them, have competitive desires and conflicting goals, but God loves them as God loves us. We can seek out common interests and work for mutual benefits as members of God’s family. We can recognize that our adversaries have potential for responding positively to our love and friendship.
We can extend to our enemies all of the practices of love for neighbor that we discuss on another pagae. Following Paul in 1 Corinthian 13, they include patience, kindness, control of anger, hope, endurance, avoidance of jealousy and arrogance, trust, and enduring hope.
Understanding. If we are to love our enemies, we must try to understand them better. It’s like the Native American saying, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” (Applicable to both genders.) Not literally but by projection.
To facilitate our understanding, we can write imaginary biographies of our adversaries. Where were they born? Under what circumstances did they grow up? What were positive and negative experiences in their lives? For hostile groups and nations, what in their history influences their relationship with us?
This is not to make excuses for them but rather to understand better what makes them tick, why they are who they are, what their potentials are. This may help us accept them more readily as children of God, our siblings so to speak. It won’t necessarily remove our differences, but it may open our minds to finding ways to resolve conflict.
Don’t humiliate. King’s instruction not to humiliate your enemy picks up Paul’s teaching that love doesn’t brag, isn’t arrogant, doesn’t seek its own advantage, doesn’t keep a record of complaints (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).
Humiliation is a practice of bullies not a trait for peacemakers. Putting down one’s adversary blocks rather than contributes to reconciliation. We need to offer a way out, a way they can maintain their dignity and self-respect as we resolve our differences.
Don’t retaliate, don’t seek revenge. As Paul wrote, “Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves” (Romans 12:19). By avoiding revenge we can break the cycle of enmity and work for a peaceful outcome.
In this manner we advance God’s kingdom on earth.