Yesterday was one of those sermons that I did not feel good about, once it was done. I feared it maybe had too much of a “just love, love, love people no matter what and let them walk all over you” kind of feel to it. Yes, there are times when you have to make a stand for something that is right, but even then, there is a right way to stand for what is right, right?
Talking about stuff that is counterintuitive is sort of counterintuitive as well. But let me share some of the main thoughts again, perhaps with some additional twists.
As I said, the past week was a bit strange with my wife being gone with our business family on a trade show trip to Wisconsin. She’ll soon be home, which is really a good thing since I can’t figure out why all the appliances other than the refrigerator have stopped working at the same time. The dishwasher isn’t loading and washing the dishes, the stove isn’t cooking anything, and I’m sure I’ve not heard the washing machine running at all this past week!
Speaking of home appliances, is my understanding that the most efficient way to heat your home in the winter is not how you might think … to turn off the heat completely overnight, and then fully heat the house again in the morning. It is actually (as I understand it) better to turn down the heat, but not exceptionally far, rather than allow the house to entirely cool for 6-8 hours. As objects in the home cool, they become a “sink of coldness” that causes more energy demand to heat up everything than if not allowed to get so cold.
This type of thinking is what we call “counterintuitive” … counter to what intuition would lead one to expect, something not easily understood in an instinctive, unconscious way. As we grow in faith and in the knowledge of the Scriptures, we learn that God’s way often is not the way of our instincts. Love your enemies? That is indeed opposite of our instincts and thereby fits as an appropriate topic for this series.
We think it best to defeat enemies by doubling down in like manner as to what they’ve done to us. Perhaps a best strategy would seem to be that “the best defense is a good offense”… to bury them before they bury you. Or there is the “shot across the bow” strategy – to make a pre-emptive strike or action of warning that they should not be so foolish as to mess with you.
So yes, to resist such intuitive action and actually love an enemy is, in a word, counterintuitive.
And loving an enemy was beyond what was the conventional wisdom and teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
When Jesus is quoted in the gospels as saying something like “you have heard it said, but I say to you …” he is speaking of the commonly-heard teaching of the leadership of that era – Jesus often correcting their misinterpretation or misrepresentation of a text. And that is what we have as we turn to Matthew 5 …
Matthew 5:43 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
- To Be Better
Yes, be better than just loving those who love you or leave you alone; rather, extend kindness beyond that to even those who hate you and treat you poorly.
This text is specifically a response to a misinterpretation of the Old Testament commandment to love your neighbor as your love yourself (Leviticus 19:18 – Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.).
The Pharisees taught that you should love your neighbor, your fellow Jew, but hate those outside of that – implying that this was God’s way of judging them.
But the passage, both then and now, begs the question, “Who is my enemy?”
a. Someone more than just a nice friend or brother.
So Jesus is not just saying here: “I have two commands: one that you love your neighbor and one that you love your enemy.” Rather, his teaching is, “I have one command: love your neighbor, and by that I mean even if your neighbor is an enemy.”
b. Those who persecute you – those who intentionally seek to harm you.
Jesus says to pray for those who persecute you. In many parts of the world today, Christians are being persecuted for their faith by those who seek to harm them. Today, some will be martyred for their faith. And in many of those settings, those Christians seek to be a blessing to those around them who mean to harm God’s people and eliminate the message of the gospel.
In our context it likely means something much less deleterious, but can feel rather harmful all the same …
… perhaps it is a person at work who seeks to thwart your success to enhance their own position in some fashion.
… perhaps it is a person in the community who resents the places of blessing, success and leadership where God has placed you. Maybe they’d like to see you taken down a peg, even though you’ve done nothing to harm them.
… perhaps it is a neighbor who finds something about your home or lifestyle to be odious to their own convictions or lack of convictions.
Jesus says, “Yes, love them. Love them. If they even seek to kill you, love them. If they take away your job, love them. If they seek to ruin your reputation, love them. If they destroy your home, love them. Love your enemies. Be that kind of person because of the life change that has happened within you.”
Specifically, the exhortation is to pray for them. I have always found it is difficult to sustain hostility toward anyone whom I pray for regularly. Praying takes the steam out of the situation. It humanizes the enemy, and you simply find yourself more and more seeing them through God’s eyes and heart.
c. Those of an opposing belief system and lifestyle – He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
These are people who simply have little in common with your worldview and way of living. You may not think of them as an enemy, nor them of you in such terms; but there is little in common relative to the big questions of life. Likely, they don’t “get” your lifestyle, and perhaps they even find it to be a bit sanctimonious… all that going to church that you do and serving in faith endeavors.
And probably you don’t “get” their lifestyle either – how it is so limited in scope to material things and the stuff merely of this world.
But quietly looking down upon them helps nothing. Feeling superior because you have the confident truth about the issues of life that comes from knowing God does not change anything or project anything that is unique.
But actively praying for them and loving them in varied ways of communication and interest in their lives is the stuff that goes beyond just being nice to people who are nice to you.
So, be better than simply loving those who love you or who are not a problem.
BUT there is a step beyond this …
- Be Beyond Better – 5:46-47
Matthew 5:46 – If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
Rightly dealing with enemies in a Godly fashion means more than just letting them alone or being nice to them if they are nice to you someday. It means taking the initiative to specifically love them and connect with them – perhaps by expressing care for them and for needs that they have.
I have imperfectly attempted to do this over the years with people whom I know have opposed my ministry. Extending invitations, praying with them in times of need, sending a note or greeting – it does not always work, nor is it always received warmly. But it almost invariably diffuses the situation.
The passage uses a couple of great illustrations…
Tax collectors – the most odious characters in the Jewish/Roman dominated culture. Even these cheats are nice to people who are nice to them … so only doing that (as the teachers taught) was to be no higher on the ladder of good character.
Pagans – those with no faith whatsoever. They care for their own people and interact freely with them. “Come on,” Jesus says. “Be better, better beyond that.”
The great American civil rights leader Martin Luther King wrote one of his most moving sermons on the title “Loving your enemies”. He was in jail at the time, imprisoned for daring to suggest that African-Americans should have the same civil rights as other Americans. During his lifetime he had received multiple death threats, he’d been maliciously accused of being a Communist, his house had been bombed, and he was jailed over 20 times. Yet in this sermon he said, “hate multiplies hate…in a descending spiral of violence” and is “just as injurious to the person who hates” as to his victim. But “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend” for it has “creative” and “redemptive” power. And time has only reinforced his primary teaching.
Going above and beyond in love, even to one who has not earned it or deserves it, can have lifechanging effects.
Again, this sort of love is not easy to do … to be better … to be beyond better. But we can ratchet that up even another notch from Christ’s teaching … verse 48 …
Matthew 5:48 – Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
- Be Best!
What? Perfect! Isn’t pretty good, good enough? Now I’ve got to be perfect?!
Well, the word perfect here could also be translated and carry the sense of the word “complete.” It does not mean sinlessly perfect, rather it means to be completely mature in being fully like the Father.
This means to have a view of the world and its peoples that is a macro view of creation and life. It is to understand the sinful nature of mankind due to the curse that goes back to Adam and Eve. It is to understand that the natural man has a bent toward selfishness. It is to understand there is no hope apart from God, and what he accomplished through the work of Christ. It is to understand that this fallen world is moving toward completion and toward a new heaven and new earth.
When you understand these things, you have a view such as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5 … So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view… Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors…
Indeed, everything about this world is entirely changed when you look at it through eternal eyes – when you have a spiritual, macro view of life related to eternity and God’s master plans.
OK… so maybe you’re a little more convinced than you were when you began reading that you need to lighten up on those people who don’t have you on their Christmas card list. Maybe you’re even thinking of being neutral at least, or perhaps nice if the opportunity presents. But perhaps you’re not sure about this “better, beyond better, best” approach. You’re maybe asking the question still, “WHY should I do this?”
Here is an answer for you … Because it was done for you!
Romans 5:9 – Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
You see, we were all enemies of God in our sinful condition. We were lost and spiritually dead and upon a path toward death and separation from God in a literal hell that God prepared originally for Satan and his cohort, fallen angelic hosts. Because, in Adam and Eve, we joined that doomed team in rebellion against God, with a curse that comes down to each of us at the moment of conception, not just at birth.
It was while we were spiritually in the condition of enemies of God that God, in grace, sent Jesus to die for us. He did not do it because we did anything to earn it or because we were sweet, good and lovely. Quite the opposite, as the previous paragraph in Romans 5 says … You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
So having been the recipient of grace and love of the highest caliber, can we justly hold on to hatred of those who are even categorically our enemies? That really does shoot to the heart of it all, doesn’t it?
I suspect we all have some introspective wrestling to do. Do you have someone like that in your life that you need to connect with this week?