“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons 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 … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (verses 43-45, 48)
The “command” that Jesus quotes is only partially from the Old Testament. Leviticus 19:18 says, “love your neighbour as yourself.”The following statement, “hate your enemy,” seems to be the implication commonly accepted at the time, the thinking being that if we must love those close-by, then the field is open to “not love,” indeed “hate,” those outside that circle.
How convenient to simply love those who are like us and hate everyone else. Yet isn’t this our common default setting?
When questioned by an expert in the Law, Jesus clarified the meaning of “neighbour” by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the one who was “neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers” (Luke 10:36). Now he stretches the scope of love further – much, much further. We are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Think of all those who have offended you, hurt you (physically, emotionally, relationally), stabbed you in the back, spoken against you (to your face or otherwise), scammed you, stolen from you, or intentionally tripped you up. Think of all those who are of a different political stripe, a different denominational background, a different ethnicity, a different moral stance, a different anything. How easy is it to discount all such folk, to speak against them, to treat them with contempt and disgust, indeed to hate them? Yet these are the very ones Jesus calls us to love.
No wonder we need the empowering of his Spirit. No wonder we need a new soft heart instead of our old hard hearts. No wonder we need a Saviour.
Our heavenly Father has shown the way. In his compassionate love he has given the blessings of creation to all humanity, without distinction, allowing the sun in all its glory to rise on each one, and rain to pour down on the earth, to the blessing of those who live rightly and those who don’t. Be his imitators, Jesus says. Love like that. Extend compassion to both “the evil and the good,” to those we think deserve it, and also to those we think don’t. Indeed, this is one of the measures of stepping into the very character of God, of being shaped more and more by his own perfection.
Practically, we know many of the things this will mean. Love is expressed in practical actions, like the Samaritan caring for that beaten, abandoned man on the roadside. It is also expressed in the heart, turning aside bitterness and disdain, and instead embracing compassion. All of this carried out by leaning into the empowering presence of the Lord himself.
But one of the practical details of this stance of life emerges from Jesus’ instruction to “pray for those who persecute you.” How good that prayer can be used to overwhelm hate. When feelings rise up in heart and mind, turning us against the “enemy” in our line of sights, prayer becomes the weapon for casting hate aside. To pray God’s blessing may be the first step in seeing that person from God’s own point of view. To go on praying blessing for them allows us to step into the very heart of God. Prayer can birth love, and then reinforce its growth, while love, newborn, will prompt us to pray, more and more.
And if we need any further stretching as to how far such love is to take us, we need only remember the ongoing prayer of Jesus from the cross, suffering from nails driven through hands and feet by those standing by watching.
“Father, forgive them.” Love like that.
Lord Jesus, I confess that your command goes against the grain – it stretches me beyond my own capacity. So, I yield to you, asking your grace. Convict me when un-love rises in my heart. Strengthen me to love like you.
Pray: Ask the Lord for insight – is there anyone you are treating as an enemy? As they come to mind, turn the sighting into prayer. Renew it, day by day.