Who Is My Enemy?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:43-45a (NIV).
In what we usually call the Sermon on the Mount Jesus frequently upended traditional thoughts on moral actions, thoughts and perspectives. In the passage just quoted He went to an extreme of which I doubt anyone in His audience would have even dreamed. Many, if not most, in His Jewish audience would have known of the Old Testament command found in Leviticus (19:18) to “love your neighbor”. And I suspect many would have just assumed that the “hate your enemy” part of this “traditional” statement was also Biblical. We now know, of course, that it is not a quote from Scripture, but rather simply the natural human extrapolation to what we might want the Old Testament command to be. So we modern Christians breathe a sigh of relief and say “Of course we are to love our neighbors and of course we should love our enemies.” But do we ever go the next step in our thought processes and ask the hard question: who does Jesus really mean by these categories of neighbor and enemy?
One expert in the Mosaic Law did ask the first half of this question. In Luke 10 we read about an encounter with Jesus where he asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. In addition to the command to love the Lord your God with all your being Jesus also quoted the Leviticus passage of loving your neighbor. The man then asked Jesus the obvious question, “Who is my neighbor?” In response Jesus shared the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, presumably to show the man who his neighbor was.
As He finished His story Jesus asked the law expert a reverse question. Obviously Jesus wanted to find out if the man had truly understood and ‘gotten’ the point! So He asked the man if he now knew who his neighbor was. Correct? No, Jesus’ question was not worded in the expected form. Instead He asked who “acted as” a neighbor, and not “who is” your neighbor. Why would Jesus not answer the man in a simple and straightforward manner?
I believe He was trying to change the man’s thought process from defining everyone else as a specific type of person to determining what type of person he himself was. Which matters more? Who some individual is to me, or who I am to that individual? What category I place a person in, or how I treat the person? I cannot change that other individual, but I can change my attitudes and actions toward that person. So, for me, the important point is how I live and act. Am I a neighbor?
But that is only half of the pertinent question. Just as Jesus said to love your neighbor, He also said to love your enemy. So is it not also important to ask who is my enemy? How might Jesus answer that question? I won’t presume to guess what parable He might tell to illustrate His meaning, but I can guess how He might word His question back to us at the end of the story. Would He ask “Who then was the enemy of the main character?” Or would He ask “Who acted as an enemy to others?”
The first question would fit within our natural human impulses to put people into nice, neat categories. But if Jesus discouraged us from placing people into a neighbor category, would He not do the same regarding enemies? I believe, more likely, that He would want us to ask ourselves “Toward whom are we acting as an enemy?” “Who are we an enemy to?”
As with the neighbor question the important detail is not the status of someone else, but rather the status of our own thoughts and actions. How am I treating another individual? Am I loving them, being compassionate for their hurts, and caring for their deep concerns? Or am I actively hating them? Disparaging them? Saying all manner of evil against them? Pushing them into ghettos and slums of their native lands?
These days we hear a lot of talk from people who claim the name of Christ about the United States having many enemies. They name specific nations, people groups, or individuals. I will not speculate on whether any of these really are enemies. But Jesus said that if we really are children of God the Father, we are to love them anyway. And if love is actually a verb rather than a noun, then our love needs to be active. Calling them derogatory names and telling them to stay away is the opposite of love. In fact, Jesus directly addressed such things earlier in the Sermon, relating the command to not murder to anger and name-calling (Matt. 5:21-22).
In short, the question to ask ourselves is “Do we truly want to be children of the Father?” If so, we must love. Actively. Everyone. Is there a risk to doing this? Absolutely! But I believe Jesus himself took the ultimate risk when He died for us. Dare we, His children, not imitate our Lord?