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. 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? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
And now we come to the crowd-control portion of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s really quite a brilliant speech, structurally, let alone it’s actual message. Jesus just spent over 40 verses (I know, he didn’t actually talk in verses, but that’s how they’ve since been recorded) recognizing those who have traditionally lacked agency in society: The poor and meek, those that hunger for righteousness, women, slaves, anyone who has taken issue with the Pharisees. By acknowledging them and their plight Jesus got their attention. They’re probably getting a little riled up, seeing a Rabbi (a person of some position) who is willing to take up for them, and beginning to ponder the possibilities of what that might mean. I’d be like, yes, finally, here’s a guy who gets it. Now, what establishment are we going to go tear down first?
Then this pivot to love your enemies. It makes the crowd a little more introspective, turns their attentions to their own hearts and calms some of the “let’s-go-show-’em” attitude that might have been building up. And it sets an introspective mood for the second half of the Sermon on the Mount which we’ll start examining next post, which deals more with one’s secret heart only God can see.
But this well-placed crowd control isn’t without its virtues. It is a reminder we still need to hear today, perhaps particularly today. It would be really easy to write a blog post today validating my own viewpoint, spending 500 words or so bashing conservative viewpoints and admonishing them to love their enemy. While I think those people definitely need a reminder about loving their enemies, Jesus is asking me to love my enemies, not go out and convince my enemies to love me. Over the past two weeks, I’ve been harboring a lot of anger over the restrictive abortion bills that have been passed, as have a lot of us. And yes, I do feel under attack, and like these lawmakers are my enemy. I don’t really feel like loving any of them. I’m guessing you don’t either. So don’t worry, no one, least of all Jesus, is asking you to go give them a hug. What he is asking for is a peaceful, constructive way forward.
A word or two on translation may help, here. Again, I’m no ancient language scholar, so I’m taking this on faith in others’ translations: There are two particular words that make a difference here. First, the word for “love” used here is “agape,” which if you are a church going person, you may have heard before. Agape is different than “philios” (which, as you might have guessed, means brotherly love) and certainly isn’t “eros” (romantic love). “Agape” love is an all-inclusive love. A love of everything, if you will. It is an overarching wish for benevolence and goodwill. That sounds super hard to attain, but I think it’s actually something we’ve all experienced. Have you ever just had a really good day? It might be hard to pinpoint what exactly makes it so great, but you’re just really happy and feel like spreading that happy around? Perhaps you’re extra-smiley to people in cross-traffic, chat with the checkout clerk, and give you’re partner an extra kiss because you’re just happy that you all are both there in the same place at the same time. I think this is Agape love. Now, holding onto that feeling may be hard, because there is a lot that can come in and derail it (like a speeding ticket, or an obnoxious customer in front of you, or your partner bringing up *that* sore subject again), but you know the feeling I’m talking about, right?
Second, “perfect.” The word is “teleios,” and can also be translated to “whole,” or “complete,” which I think is a much better translation. Jesus isn’t asking us to be perfect, because come on, he knows we’re human, right? He’s asking us to be all-inclusive. We need to love everyone. That means people that aren’t our race, or religion, or nationality. That means sexual minorities, poor people, that annoying coworker who just won’t stop talking and that nosey neighbor who let’s you know the minute your grass gets above two inches high….and the Alabama congressmen who passed the abortion law last week.
So how do we “agape” in a “teleios” manner? How do we hold a benevolent wish of goodwill for all of mankind? Practice. I think agape love is a practice kind of like forgiveness: it’s an ongoing learning process in which we might sometimes fall of the wagon, but we have to keep trying, we can’t just one-and-done it. Just keep practicing, and we’ll get better at it.
But what TF to practice? “Love thy enemies” is ripe for saccharine platitudes that just paper over the hurts caused by said enemies, allowing those that hold the power to keep trampling over the rights of those that don’t. Unfortunately nothing is nearly as satisfying as the realization that Jesus is actually telling us to take a stand when he says to turn the other cheek, but there are a few things that we can do that will help.
Praying, for one. I know, that sounds like the most saccharine of all. “Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers” are the empty words used after every school shooting that just make my blood boil. But again, if we view agape love like we view forgiveness, it is just as much (if not more so) for ourselves as it is for our enemies. When we pray for our enemies, we change ourselves into better people, not to mention set a good example for our kids, our enemies’ kids, and anyone else who might be watching. Make it a selfish prayer: “God, I hate this person and I do not want to. Please help me find a way to find love in my heart for them.”
Also, remembering them as human helps, too. Actually, I’ve become a lot better at this part since becoming a mom. Remember that even the most abhorrent person was once a child, once a baby, helps frame them as just another part of the system that raised them, not an evil monster. That doesn’t mean we can’t vehemently oppose whatever heinous things they do, or even advocate for fair retributions, but realizing that they are human, too, helps in our own practice of agape love.
Pivoting the focus away from a person and back towards the issue can take a lot of heat out of things. This is tricky, and I’ll be honest, as a middle-class white woman I’m uncomfortable writing about it. So let me just come out and say, I’m not telling anyone not to be angry. I’m not telling anyone to “calm down.” There is a time and place for anger, for strong language, for sweeping movements and statements. If you are oppressed, use those tools. But if you’re just angry, especially if you’re in a place of privilege, leave those tools for those who really need it. As my mama always taught me, you’ll catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. Whenever possible, focus on the issue and don’t make things personal. You’ll look like the bigger person and I guarantee that will win you points in the long run.
Finally, show compassion. To your friends, to you enemies, to everyone you possibly can. It’s the best way to lead by example and help be a positive change in the world. It is hard to hate someone offering only love. Sure, there will be people that manage to harbor that hate, but there will be others who let it go. Again, think of your enemies’ kids: What better victory would it be to win them over? And it’s happening. Take acceptance of gay marriage for example. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2004, 60% of Americans disapproved of gay marriage. In 2019, 61% now approve of gay marriage. In the time it takes for one generation to come of age, that flip has happened. Yes, there were people who fought vehemently for that change, but you know what I think was the most deciding factor in this change of opinion? Compassion, or lack thereof. I think people, particularly young people, saw the nasty vitriol with which many conservative leaders were attacking gay rights (mostly in words, but sometimes in deeds), and saw the love and acceptance that gay rights advocates were upholding, and the choice was clear – go with the love.
It is hard, and even disheartening, to be asked to love our enemies when they are spewing so much hatred. But their hatred is exactly why we have to keep loving them. We will “win” in the long run if we do so, as I hope the example above illustrated. Keep protesting, keep speaking your truth, keep advocating for those who can’t. But remember that the world is watching, and will judge our actions towards our enemies just as much as they judge our enemies’ actions. Let’s make those actions compassionate and loving. Doing so, we will win.