To quote my mother, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket.” And if the events of this last year are any indication, Mom may be right.
On August 12, 2017, a young man used his car as a weapon, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others who were protesting against the presence of Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
On October 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, leaving 58 people dead and more than 700 injured.
On Sunday, November 5, 2017, a 26-year-old gunman stormed the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 men, women, and children and wounding 20 more. It was the worst mass shooting in Texas history.
On Valentine’s Day, which corresponded with Ash Wednesday this year, Lent began not with expressions of love but with inexplicable tragedy in Parkland, Florida. A 19-year-old entered his old high school and gunned down and killed 17 people and injured 14 others.
I haven’t even mentioned those who lose their lives to everyday gun violence.
Thanks to DACA, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and those advocating for LGBT rights, as a culture we are becoming more aware that many have suffered grievously, sometimes silently, and often in fear for their lives, their livelihoods, and their futures.
And then there is the fear of terrorist attacks that exists just below our consciousness like a low-grade fever. I can’t imagine the panic people in Hawaii must have felt when they received the false alert this January that a ballistic missile was headed their way.
The approval rating for our president is low, and Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election continues to be headline news. Our president, our Congress, and our television personalities are all embroiled in various fights and controversies. Our police force is under suspicion. Our neighbors are living in fear. During my most recent international travels, several people asked me, “What happened to America? We used to look up to you.”
Our public discourse on the economy, terrorism, immigration, health care, racism, xenophobia, sexual orientation, violence, and poverty has sunk to name-calling, vilifying, and finger-pointing.
Perhaps my mother got it wrong. We’re not going to hell; we’ve already arrived.
We are in a desert devoid of civility, searching the horizon for a path to moral rectitude.
We haven’t lost everything. We still have our faith, hope, and Scripture. What would Jesus advise in this moral quagmire we find ourselves in?
“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” (Matt. 5:43–44).
Certainly Jesus didn’t mean to love and pray for people who carry Nazi flags, hate groups who advocate the genetic superiority of one race over another, or those who use their power to molest and sexually exploit others. It doesn’t make sense. There’s got to be another interpretation.
Maybe Jesus’ teaching had a time limit and what he really meant was, “Be really good to each other until I return, which, by the way, is any day now.” For those who would pick up their cross and follow him, did Jesus envision two millennia of self-sacrificing virtuous behavior?
This is the premise that I’m going to investigate: Jesus didn’t really mean it. He didn’t really mean to love racists or terrorists or pedophiles. Because the alternative, if true, is just too hard.
To test my thesis, I’m going to answer three questions: What did Jesus say? What did Jesus mean? What does that mean for us?
What did Jesus say?
Jesus understood his death as an exodus (Luke 9:31) through which those enslaved to sin might enter into the fullness of God’s kingdom. That this age would be supplanted by God’s reign was an understanding of the end times in first-century Israel. The disciples of Jesus recognized that his resurrection from the dead was the first sign of the dawning of God’s reign. There would then be a period of tribulation and, finally, the Messiah would return to judge the living and the dead.
For the earliest followers of the resurrected Jesus, his return was imminent. The ethical demands of Jesus’ teachings and further interpretations by Paul and the evangelists were thought to be ethics for this liminal time. In other words, the followers of Jesus needed to know how to behave in the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection and the second coming.
But Jesus did not return immediately as his earliest followers had anticipated. This delay of the second coming became one of the first major theological struggles of the early Christian community. The radical behavior and attitudes advocated by Jesus had to be reinterpreted for the long haul. Within the first generation of Christians, the teachings of Jesus already had to be contextualized.
While Jesus’ sayings may have circulated orally, unattached to their original context, by the time we read them in the gospels they have their own narrative framework. In order to understand Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemy,” we need to begin with its literary context. The command is found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5–7) and in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Chapter 6).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a series of beatitudes or blessings (Matt. 5:3–12), teaches on various topics (Matt. 5:17–6:34), lists how disciples should behave (7:1–12), and closes with warnings for the true disciple (Matt. 7:13–27). With the Beatitudes, Jesus begins his outdoor lecture by going over the syllabus and describing what gets you an A in the class. He outlines the actions and attitudes of those who will be blessed.
The actions of blessing—dependency, mourning, peacemaking, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, suffering insult, and persecution—are to be rewarded with the wealth of the kingdom, comfort, fulfillment, and a great reward in heaven. In other words, what you do now affects what you receive later.
Other blessings are showered on those with particular attitudes. The ones who are meek (Matt. 5:5), the ones who are merciful (Matt. 5:7), the ones who are clean of heart (Matt. 5:8), and the ones who are persecuted because of their righteousness (Matt. 5:10)—all receive blessing. For Matthew, dependency on God, mourning, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, peacemaking, and suffering insult and persecution are accompanied by the attitudes of meekness, mercy, pureness of heart, and righteousness.
Matthew has Jesus begin the Sermon on the Mount with a call to would-be disciples: Blessed will you be if you do these actions and hold these attitudes. If you do, “You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world” (5:13a, 14a).
Jesus then turns to what his students already have learned: “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you.” Jesus presents six reinterpretations of Scripture that address murder (Matt. 21–26), adultery (27–30), divorce (31–32), the taking of oaths (33–37), retaliation (38–42), and treatment of the enemy (43–48). In his Commentary on the New Testament, Robert Gundry notes, “The sayings are traditionally called ‘the Antitheses.’ But this designation seems to imply that after stoutly affirming the (Mosaic) Law in 5:17–20, Jesus contradicts it. We’ll see on the contrary that he escalates it. He takes the Law up to the goal toward which it was already headed, so that we should stop calling these sayings ‘the Antitheses’ and perhaps start calling them ‘the Culminations.’ ”
These teachings are not antithetical to the law, but they present situations that are antithetical to love. Jesus announces he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). The word we translate as “fulfill” is plãroõ in the Greek and means to bring to completion. Jesus isn’t so much telling the disciples that what they learned already is incorrect, but rather that it is incomplete.
The disciples are to possess righteousness that exceeds the scribes and Pharisees in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus describes what such righteousness looks like. After commending the disciples that their “yes” and “no” are to be decisive, Jesus turns to the biblical warrant for limited retaliation also known as lex talionis, or the law of retaliation: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” (Matt. 5:38–39).
Jesus outlines five situations in which the disciple is to resist retaliation: when struck, sued, pressed into service, asked for alms, and asked for a loan (Matt. 38–42). If that weren’t enough, in the last antithesis Jesus then ups the ante: “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” (Matt. 5:43–44).
Matthew fudges a bit on his citing of Leviticus 19:18, because the phrase, “you shall hate your enemy,” is not found here or anywhere in the Old Testament. In fact the Greek word we translate as enemy really means “the hated one.” Jesus wasn’t the first to propose treating the “hated one” with kindness.
While we can’t find the phrase “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” in ancient sources, there is wide evidence that this is how people acted. It seems that people behaving badly toward each other is not limited to the 21st century.
In Jesus’ teachings, the radical mercy required of a disciple is truly a discipline, the greatest hurdle being to love one’s enemies (5:44). Jesus gives his rationale: “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:45–48).
God makes no distinction in sending rain, the life force for an agricultural people living in a land with little perennial water. If God cares for those who are inimical to God, as children of God, shouldn’t we follow suit? Jesus argues that loving only those who love you isn’t really extraordinary. The same can be said of those we “hate,” since tax collectors and pagans are good to those of their own kind. But disciples, those on the A-list, are to be perfect as their heavenly father is perfect.
The Greek is teleios, and it connotes having attained the end or purpose, therefore complete. As it relates to people, it means full-grown, mature, an adult. The test of a mature disciple is how one behaves toward one’s follow human beings—even the ones you hate—as God would behave: with love.
All the excellent teachers I’ve had have one thing in common: They practice what they preach. They didn’t just tell me what to do; they showed me. Jesus is laying out the course for his disciples. “Love your enemies” isn’t just a high bar set for his followers. Jesus himself will demonstrate just how it’s done.
Think of Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman who seeks Jesus’ aid to heal her daughter (15:21–28). Jesus calls her faith great. Or there’s Luke’s presentation of the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25–37). Canaanites and Samaritans were considered Israel’s enemies. And most dramatically, on the cross, Jesus cries out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus asks forgiveness for the Romans who crucify him.
Situated as the first of five teaching blocks in the Gospel of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount announces blessings on those whose actions and attitudes evidence a readiness for the reign of God. Jesus clarifies that the law and the prophets remain the operative course of life until the end times, but he reinterprets those laws, adding a greater expectation for righteous living. True disciples live by a higher standard in the heightened awareness of the imminent end. Love of one’s enemies demonstrates that one is truly a child of the father and acknowledges that only God is the one to judge.
What did Jesus mean?
Since Matthew has taken Jesus’ words and situated them in a new framework, we have to do a bit of digging to uncover what his original words may have meant in Jesus’ context. One way to do that is to see where else Jesus has commented on the Old Testament verse about loving one’s neighbor.
In Matthew, Chapter 19, we meet someone who asks Jesus what he has to do to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. When the fellow says he has done all of that, Jesus then suggests, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (21).
The young man goes away very sad because he had many possessions. Why does Jesus recommend divestiture of assets? How does that relate to the list of commandments that Jesus recites? It doesn’t, unless you consider that Jesus says to give what you have to the poor. Of those commandments stated, only one could relate to the poor: love your neighbor. How do you love your neighbor as yourself? You treat them as you would wish to be treated. You share what you have. That’s sort of what Jesus says in Chapter 5. If someone begs of you, don’t turn your back on them (Matt. 5:42).
The other instance in which Jesus speaks of the neighbor is in Chapter 22. A scholar of the law attempts to test Jesus, asking which commandment is the greatest. Jesus answers and offers a bonus: “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40). It’s an echo of the Sermon on the Mount.
Love of God and love of neighbor are everything, Jesus says. Luke tells us who is our neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan. I think Matthew doesn’t include it here because, in essence, Jesus has already stated it back in Chapter 5: “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” (43–44).
Jesus is expanding the concept of neighbor. Actually, he’s blowing it out of the water. You love your neighbor, even if your neighbor is someone you hate.
By bringing together Jesus’ various statements on “love of neighbor” in Matthew’s gospel, we begin to see more clearly what Jesus might have meant. He isn’t talking only about how to behave as we await the end times. He isn’t recommending radical mercy and extravagant love for the short-term. Love of those whom we hate is the very fulfillment of God’s law. Because when you love that which you hate, it ceases to be the object of hate. There are no haters in the kingdom of God. Jesus means for his disciples to be law-abiding citizens of the reign of God. To live the law of love fully, even when it may cause one suffering and persecution.
What does this mean for us?
It seems that Jesus really did mean to love your enemies. This isn’t some “goody-two-shoes” act or pious practice for the über faithful. This isn’t the “A” on the test of Christian life. This is a pass/fail. An all or nothing endeavor. We have to decide if we’re signing up for this class in the first place. To receive a blessing, we’re accountable for the actions and attitudes that warrant that blessing. Our righteousness must exceed beyond that of the religious professionals of our day. It’s not enough to go to church. We must be church. And one of the most radical ways to do that is to heed Jesus’ words. Combat hate with love and persecution with prayer. Because God did just that for you.
Perhaps we start by holding ourselves accountable to what we profess and truly owning that we are children of God. We have a shared humanity with those whom we deem our enemies, and I may not be able to see them as brothers and sisters, but I can start by recognizing that they are neighbors in the human family.
I don’t have to like everyone in my family. I don’t have to condone their actions, support their thinking, or refrain from criticizing their behavior. But I do have to be civil. I do have to stop name-calling (I’m particularly good at that). I have to stop stereotyping. I have to risk the attitudes and actions of a disciple. Anything less is not fit for the reign of God.
This article also appears in the June 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 5, pages 28–33).
Image: Flickr cc via VCU CNS