Loving Your Enemies

Carl Bloch: “Christ Mocked by a Soldier”

If you think non-retaliation is a tough principle to live by (see my post of June 20, 2011), what about Jesus’ teaching on loving your enemies? The commands to “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you” seem beyond my reach. What about yours?

Matthew 5, verses 43-48, begins with Jesus’ statement summarizing the conventional religious wisdom of his day: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” This conventional religious wisdom that Jesus quoted is a perversion of Mosaic law, a perversion that omits the words “as yourself,” excludes enemies from the category of “neighbors” and adds the command to hate them instead.

In stark contrast to this perverted religious teaching, Jesus commands his followers to love without boundaries. It is a love that reflects the love God the Creator has for the world. It is a love that creates the conditions for shalom.

The Jews were a conquered people with an occupying foreign military presence in their land. They were also one of the most heavily taxed people in history. To his Jewish audience, “love your enemy” might have brought to mind images of abusive Roman soldiers who treated them as despised slaves or arbitrary tax collectors who could charge whatever they could get away with.

Did Jesus follow this difficult command himself? He sure did! Jesus’ actions during his arrest and trial are vivid examples of how he chose to live and how he wanted his disciples to live. Immediately following his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the armed crowd of temple officials and guards brought Jesus before Annas and then Caiaphas, the two leading Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem. When blatantly false charges were made against him, Jesus remained silent. He was slapped by one of the officials and later spit upon, then blindfolded and beaten, while the guards mocked him. Jesus did not retaliate in word or action.

The next morning they dragged the beaten prisoner before Pontius Pilate, who surely knew of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem several days earlier. In his conversation with Jesus, Pilate asked him if he was “king of the Jews.” Jesus agreed, but explained to Pilate that his kingdom was “not of this world.” The promised Messiah was ushering in a different kind of Kingdom, not one built by warfare or political intrigue as Pilate’s had. The good news of shalom that he preached was not linked to any political or military empire nor was it established by violence. It was a gospel of grace and love.

Jesus’ illegal trials by both Jewish and Roman authorities led to his crucifixion, a brutal form of execution routinely used by Rome, especially against political revolutionaries. Even in the midst of the painful agony of his crucifixion, Jesus practiced what he preached. In an act of incomprehensible love, he prayed “Father, forgive them [the soldiers] for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24).

When Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecuted them – and then did so himself, he demonstrated the radical character of the gospel of shalom, a message of love in the midst of a world of hatred and violence.

So What?
  • Can you think of examples or situations in your own life where you faced opposition (“enemies”) and could have responded differently than you did if you had followed Jesus’ teachings?
  • Can you think of examples in history where someone chose to show love, rather than hatred, toward an enemy? Share these examples with other readers.
  • Isn’t it true that we are often tempted to “spiritualize” hard teachings like this from Jesus and conclude that Jesus really meant we needed to pray for those people we don’t like. To actually “love an enemy” is something most of us would never even try. Yet it is a command, not a suggestion, from Jesus, right?