What Does Loving Your Enemies Mean?

Matthew 5: 43 – 48; Mark 12: 28 – 34.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemies.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…” was spoken by the Lord Jesus within the context of the Sermon on the Mount and the Second Great Commandment (c.f., Matt 22:35-40). This is one of six antithetical statements in the preceding narrative (Matt 5:17-48), which drew out the Old Testament legal requirements juxtaposed with Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. The authority of the law and the prophets is undoubtedly not abolished, as they remain the respected word of God, but with the advent of Jesus, their role is no longer the same, now that what they pointed forward to has come. Subsequently, it will be the authoritative teaching of Jesus which must govern His disciples’ understanding and practical application of the law; operating beyond their literal observance of Torah regulations, with a deeper and more challenging level of discerning the will of God.

The quotation by Jesus on ‘loving your neighbour’ within the context of the first two Great Commandments He mentioned in the gospels (Matt 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-29; John 13:31-35; c.f., Deut 6:4-5) was the result of a challenge from a Jewish lawyer. To love God with all our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength is to love God with our whole being, period. It is to finally die to the self and become incapable of the idolatrous worship of other gods and objects. The Second Greatest Commandment is predictably tied to the First since in selflessly glorifying God; we become the bearers of His love to ‘our neighbours’ that would include our enemies (c.f., Lev 19:18; Luke 10:25-37). Personal vindictiveness remains part and parcel of our human frailties, with its seemingly bitter and endless brutality, distinctly unlike the merciful and graciousness of a just God whose love and judgments are fair and impartial towards the just and the unjust. Jesus addressed this perennial issue concerning foes who persecuted believers, and His shocking advice is that we should pray for them (Matt 5:44-45; c.f., 5:11-12), for the simple reason that God’s providential love includes everyone. One would be able to pray for his enemies once, maybe twice, but to be able to sustain praying for one’s enemies regularly is to eventually embrace God’s forgiveness and benevolence for those whom we once sought to avenge. The principal thought behind this is that God Himself is entirely aware of what had transpired, and therefore in line with His consistent pronouncements: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ”Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord” (Rom 12:19; c.f., Rom 12:14-21; 1Thess 5:15; 1Peter 3:8-12). Our comfort in the face of adversities and injustice is to know that He is our final Arbiter and Judge, and His justice is eternally fair, always meted out in His time. Our vendetta comes nowhere close to the wisdom of His justice simply because He is omniscient.

How does loving our enemies fit into Christian discipleship? Revenge under any guise is incompatible with the Christian life. Although God’s wrath is a reality and the Scriptures are replete with His judgments in the Old and New Testaments (Exodus 32:19-29; Acts 5:1-11; Rev 14:9-20; Rev 16:1-21), His providential love for the lost and rebellious remains operative. Jesus loved those whom He disagreed with, and time and again sought to draw them towards His Father’s kingdom. In a similar sense, irrespective of any form of misdemeanours, our love towards the transgressor ought to be our motivating factor, as we seek their restoration, if possible, since our position in Christ empowered us no less to love as Jesus loves (John 17:20-26). The Christian community is the salt of the earth and a light set on a hill, and if we desire in Christ to continue to be the social and spiritual transforming agents where we live, our task would be to overcome our instinctive prejudices toward our perceived and real enemies with compassion and pluck, just like Jesus did in His days (Matt 5:46-48).