Jesus spoke of people in four categories – they are either family, friends, neighbors, or enemies – and he tells us to love them all, including our enemies. Who is your enemy? This is someone who is out to destroy your life or destroy your vocation or reputation… or (more likely) someone who irritates you, who has a way of ruining your day, who is “not helpful to your program.” An enemy. And Jesus says to love our enemies and to forgive them. It’s a very tall order. Several thoughts come to mind.
Jesus tells us to “love our enemies,” notbecause it makes for more pleasant living, though that may be true. Rather, we love our enemies because our enemies can be our teachers, sometimes our best teachers. Our enemies can get us in touch with “our own stuff,” and like no one else can. Those outbursts or eruptions or emotional reactions that rise up in us. Where do they come from? And why are they sometimes so disproportional to the “offense” we have experienced from this other person? Our enemies expose us. They can be extraordinary agents for our own conversion. I’ll call this the “Velcro principle.” When the hooks of someone else’s “Velcro” sticks to our own “Velcro,” there’s something there in us, to look into, to open up, to offer to God. Our enemies can be our teachers.[i] Don’t hate them, love them, Jesus says.
The first lesson appointed for today, the reading we heard from the Prophecy of Isaiah, begins with the words: “Here is my servant; …I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[i] Now this reading is like a supernatural transcription of what the prophet Isaiah heard from God: God’s spirit being promised to the long-awaited Messiah, and also, God’s spirit reaching to foreign nations and distant lands, to the gôyîm, the non-Jews: people like many of us. How will we know God’s presence and God’s power? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work, the outward sign, the fruit of God’s spirit? Justice. Justice to the nations. What will be the preeminent work and witness of the Messiah? Justice.[ii]
In the scriptures, justice is broader than what is dictated by law or custom. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due, especially the poor and the weak. The Prophet Isaiah continues, “abruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” which shows a kind, gentle, dignified respect for others, especially the weak.[iii] The Prophet Isaiah closes with the words: “[The Messiah and we, the Messiah’s followers] will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth…” The Messiah’s mission begins and ends with justice. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due. Justice!
If I were to tell you that I love my sister – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, have a sibling, or spouse, or partner, or best friend whom you love very much. If I were to make the revelation that I also love dill pickles – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, love dill pickles, or, if not, you love something delectable. But you would understand that I don’t love my sister the same way I love dill pickles. Right? In English we use the verb “love” in many, many different ways, our word “love” being defined by its context. Not so in Greek, the language of the New Testament. In Greek there are four different verbs which we, in English, translate as “love.” And in the Greek, there’s also a host of other verbs that describe our relationship to pickles and the like.
So we should rightly ask, when we hear Jesus say “love your enemies,” what kind of love is this? What’s the Greek verb? It’s rather unfortunate. Jesus is talking here of love at its most, most extreme, self-sacrificial way. Jesus is using the same “love” verb that describes how he literally lays down his life in being crucified by his enemies. Why? For love. It’s imaginable how we would give up our lives, lay down our lives, expend our lives in very self-sacrificial ways for our spouse, or lover, or child, or for someone else whom we adore. That goes without saying. But what Jesus is saying here is to love our enemies in the same way. I beg to differ.
The first lesson appointed for today, the reading we heard from the Prophecy of Isaiah, begins with the words: “Here is my servant; …I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[i] Now this reading is like a supernatural transcription of what the prophet Isaiah heard from God: God’s spirit being promised to the long-awaited Messiah, and also, God’s spirit reaching to foreign nations and distant lands, to the gôyîm, the non-Jews, people like many of us. How will we know? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work? What will be the outward sign, the fruit of God’s spirit among us? Justice. Justice to the nations. These opening words of Isaiah, God’s prophet, about the forthcoming Messiah, and then, later,when Jesus, the Messiah, begins his ministry, his opening words are about justice.[ii]
In the New Testament Greek there are four different verbs for “love.” There’s the verb stergein, the love within a family, a child’s love for his or her parents. There’s the verb eran, which is the love of sexual passion; the erotic “love of lovers.” There’s the verb philein, the kind of love we have for our closest friends and neighbors. Then there’s a fourth verb, agapan, that Jesus uses here. This love, agape love, is different from the rest. Jesus here specifically says that he’s not talking about loving family or friends, those to whom we’re naturally attracted and already love; nor is he coaching us to fall in love with people. He’s using here this very unique agape love in terms of our most difficult relationships: with our enemies. Enemies, which includes people who are literally out to kill us and folks who give us a hard time, who trip us up, who take advantage of us, who don’t have our best interests in mind, people who are – as we say in slang – not helpful to our program. Enemies. And how do we deal with those sorts of folks? With agape love.