Jesus Calls Us to Love the Haters

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 6:33

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-48 rsv

What’s the hardest thing that a follower of Jesus Christ could ever be called on to do? How about this – “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s pretty difficult, isn’t it? The Lord isn’t talking here about people we don’t happen to like or those who slight us on occasion. These are enemies. They’re persons who hate us, who treat us with malice. They not only don’t fancy us and what we stand for. In a determined way, they persecute us. How can we love people like that? And why would we pray for our bitterest foes? It doesn’t seem to make sense, does it? At first glance, it hardly seems realistic in a world like ours, or even possible to do.

These words are from Jesus’ sermon on the mount in Matthew, chapter 5, beginning at verse 43. Listen carefully to what He says:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The extraordinary difficulty of doing this becomes even clearer with the whole passage in view. Jesus is calling His disciples to do something dramatically different and astonishingly hard. They are to serve gladly and seek the good of the very people in the world who most try to do them harm. And they are to intercede with God out of loving concerned hearts for those who treat them like dirt. Some assignment! It’s a call to be, in Jesus’ words, “perfect.” What can that mean and how could anyone ever do it?

LOVING NEIGHBORS AND HATING ENEMIES

Apparently, it was being taught in Jesus’ time that we should love our neighbors and hate our enemies. There never was a command in the Old Testament to hate enemies, but that was apparently an inference that many people drew. They understood “neighbors” to mean the people that lived nearby, those of the chosen people, of their race, of their kindred. The responsibility was clearly laid out to love such people and seek their good. But when you got beyond the neighbor, beyond those to whom you were bound by ties of kinship, your responsibility for active loving was over. For the rest, you could do what comes naturally.

But Jesus notes that we don’t need any command of God to live that way. In general, that’s what everyone does. We tend, all of us, to love the people who love us. We treat well the people who deal with us kindly. Jesus points to the most despised people in Jewish culture, the tax collectors, and says: “Look at them, they do that. They treat their fellow cronies and crooks well.” Mafia members do favors and show kindnesses to their partners in crime. Nothing remarkable or commendable about that. And look at the Gentile world, Jesus says. They’re happy to see their family members, and are usually ready to do them a good turn. But these aren’t God’s people. They don’t have the law and the prophets. What possible good would a command do to love your friends and hate your enemies? Many do that without any religious motivation at all.

Think about what used to be Yugoslavia. Do the forces representing the Serbs, the Croats, the Bosnian Muslims, have close bonds with their fellow soldiers, friendships, mutual loyalties? Do they sometimes exhibit self-sacrifice for one another? We would expect that to be so. But apparently, all of them have heartlessly slaughtered civilians of the rival ethnic groups. They have so loved their neighbors and hated their enemies as to make that part of the world a hell on earth. The same has been true at times between Israelites and Palestinians in the holy land, between the ANC and the Inkatha in South Africa. As that pattern of living goes on, the hatred and alienation grows. We become more and more alienated from opposing groups. The cycle of hatred, violence and revenge spirals on and on and we find ourselves acting more like devils than like human beings.

According to the New Testament, when we respond to enmity and persecution with the same attitude and the same treatment, we not only escalate the tragedy, we also let ourselves be overcome. The bitterness in someone else’s heart gets inside of us. Their murdering makes murderers of us. Evil conquers us and everyone loses.

ANOTHER WAY

Jesus says, let’s come at it a different way. Let’s not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. Let’s return love for hate, blessing for cursing, prayer for persecution. And do you know why He tells us we’re to do that? Because of the way in which God treats people like us. He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good. He sends rain on the just and on the unjust. The sunlight on a glorious spring morning shines as brightly on heartless, wicked people as on saints. Refreshing spring rains fall as much on the lands of a dishonest farmer as on those of a God-fearing one. And, we remember, even those saints and God-fearing people often act out of character. They show themselves also to be ungrateful and selfish at times. But God keeps on lavishing His kindness on His human children without any regard to their attitude toward Him. In order to qualify for His daily life-sustaining, life-enriching gifts, no one has to praise Him, serve Him, even obey Him. They can scream blasphemies at heaven and do everything possible to flout His commands. Still He showers blessings on them. Pretty amazing!

Here’s the striking thing about the ethics set out in the New Testament, the way of life Christians are to adopt. Morality, right conduct, is rooted in the character of God. The way in which we treat other people is to be shaped by the way God treats us. We’re to be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving each other because that’s how He deals with us. We’re to love without conditions because in an amazing, unconditional way, He loves us. Do you want to know how you ought to live in this world? How you ought to respond to the way people treat you? How you ought to feel toward them and act toward them? Here’s a simple formula: copy God. Don’t let what other people do to you determine the way you act toward them. You’re taking another cue. You’re marching to a different drum. God does good to His enemies, so you make it your aim to follow suit.

This kind of charge obviously makes sense only to those who know the God revealed in Christ. They are sure they are His beloved children. They call Him “Abba,” Father. He is their heavenly Father and when they love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, they are showing the family likeness.

I received a letter recently that enclosed a generous gift for the work of Words of HOPE. It came from one of the sons of a dear friend who died a few years ago. We aren’t given many friends in life like this man. From the time that we first became acquainted, decades ago, Gordon prayed for me every day. He was always happy to get together with me when I needed to talk and pray. If I had a book published, he was its best promoter.

I lost a treasure when he died. But now this son writes me a letter appreciating the work that I do, wishing me well, and talking about his dad and how his dad shared things with him. This young man, not only in face and feature, but also in heart and life, is bearing the family likeness. He is his father’s true son. That’s how it’s to be with us, sons and daughters of our heavenly Father learning to deal with others as He has dealt with us – especially our enemies.

What about this “being perfect” business? Does Jesus really mean that? Yes. But it’s not perfection in the sense that we sometimes think of. No one of us is ever perfect in the sense that we no longer stumble and fall, blunder and make mistakes. That’s a part of our common human lot as long as we’re in this world. The word translated perfect means complete. It can mean wholehearted or without partiality. Jesus is saying that we’re to be complete and wholehearted in loving just as God is. Our hearts are to be unconditionally caring like His. We’re to show kindness to all just as God makes no exceptions based on character or even godliness. We’re to learn more and more to love in this all-embracing way that returns good for evil.

THE SAVIOR AND THE SERVANT

Have we a model of how this actually works in a human life? Think of Jesus Himself. Jerusalem, the rebellious city, rejects Him, refuses His invitations of mercy. What does He do – thunder judgments against them? Call down plagues? No, He weeps over the city. He longs for these people. He prays for them and later when they do their worst, when they condemn Him and dismiss Him as unfit to live, when they subject Him to humiliation and fiendish torture, what does He do? Shout maledictions from the cross like many another condemned man? No, these enemies of His, these persecutors, these revilers, these haters, He prays for them: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

You say, “Yes, but that was Jesus. He was perfect. He was God’s Son. He was unique. No one else ever lived like He did.” That’s right on all counts. But what about this follower of His named Stephen? Remember him? When he confronted the religious authorities with the fact that they had been disobedient to God and had betrayed and murdered His Son, their hatred and fury against him knew no bounds. “They were enraged,” says the book of Acts. They ground their teeth against him. They cast him out of the city, gathered around him and pounded him with stones until he died. They were his enemies. They persecuted him. They left his body a battered pulp. But with the last energies of his heart, Stephen loved these people. With the last breath in his body, he prayed for them: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Sound familiar? It was almost like, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Loving Savior – loving servant. Stephen bore the family likeness.

What made that possible? It was what happened in between Jesus’ death and Stephen’s death. After Good Friday came Easter. And after Easter came Pentecost. The risen Christ, ascended to the Father’s right hand, sent His Spirit to the hearts of His followers, breathed His own life into those who believed in Him and they discovered a new power to love. And that is the secret of Christian living, the kind of “miracle life” Jesus recommends. He doesn’t call us to act differently from tax collectors and Gentiles on the basis of our superior morality. He calls us rather to share in His risen life, to participate in the new kind of loving that became possible when He entered history on our behalf. The call is to copy God, but not in any imagined strength of our own. The call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us is an invitation to faith and prayer. We say, “Lord, apart from Your grace and power I could never do that in a million years. But since You call me to do it, it must be possible. So, renouncing all dependence upon myself, I ask You to fill me with Your Holy Spirit so that I can begin to live like a child of my heavenly Father.”

This is what made Stephen what he was. He was full of the Holy Spirit, and that can be true for me and for you. Jesus said, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13). Ask Him for that every day, many times a day and every time you face hatred and abuse. It’s a miracle when anyone is able to return good for evil, but it’s a miracle that can happen in us – through Jesus Christ.