By Stephen L. Flowers
The biblical command to “love your neighbor as yourself” comes from the Old Testament law in Leviticus 19:18. The entire chapter deals with being holy. Jewish scholars have noted that for humans, holiness doesn’t “refer to (striving for) superior moral qualities” but “is the state of (showing we belong) to (God)” (endnote 1).
That belongingness is expressed in how we act towards others and is illustrated throughout Leviticus 19 in a myriad of ways, including to leave some of the harvest “for the poor and the alien,” to not lie to one another, to not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, and to not slander others. As one Christian scholar noted, to love your neighbor as yourself is “the summary of this whole section (because) holiness… expresses itself in neighborliness” (endnote 2).
The command to love our neighbor is best known to most Christians from the three Gospel stories in which Jesus and the Pharisees discuss the question of what is the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-34, Matthew 22:34-40, and Luke 10:25-28). We also find the law to love your neighbor referenced in Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, and James 2:8. The law was obviously highly valued by ancient Jew and Christian alike.
But Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount contains the only instance where Jesus explains how we should interpret that law— “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor…’ But I say to you, love your enemies” (Matthew 5:43-44). The original context of “neighbor” as used in Leviticus 19 referred only to fellow ancient Israelites. But, as one scholar noted, Jesus’ use of “enemies” refers to “national enemies… competing religious groups, and personal enemies” (endnote 3).
It’s at this point that I need to help you manage your expectations about this essay. I’m not writing it because God granted me special revelation about this topic but because I’m challenged thinking through what God wants loving my enemies to specifically look like in my life. But let me put a pin in that thought for a moment while I share some things that I do feel confident do not count as loving your enemies. Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously stated, “Perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly (defining all the kinds of material embraced within hard-core pornography). But I know it when I see it” (endnote 4). Similarly, I know what’s not loving your enemy when I see it, and here’s three I’ve seen:
- Christians creating/sharing/liking social media posts that are mean spirited, cruel, or just plain hurtful towards someone else is not loving your enemy no matter how justified one may feel in denouncing the underlying subject matter. As my Granny was fond of saying, “There’s no excuse for being rude.”
- Christians supporting any government law or policy that serves to restrict anyone’s freedom to work where they want, live where they want, marry who they want, adopt children, or worship how they want is not loving your enemy.
- Christians who continue to let themselves suffer under physical or severe emotional abuse in a relationship because they feel it’s their Christian duty to endure it, is not loving your enemy.
As I said, I don’t have a list of specific acts to love your enemy. But I do have some groundwork I’m using to think through what those should be, and that’s where I am as I write this.
Guideline #1 – Jesus follower = enemy lover
New Testament scholar Eduard Schweizer noted that Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies “demolishes all the fences into which (people) would confine love of neighbor,” and that “almost all (Jesus’) sayings have parallels in Judaism; only the call to love one’s enemies cannot be found in the same blunt terms… (it is) something utterly new” (endnote 5). This is why I say that Jesus did not call us to love our neighbor but to love our enemies. If we are not actively engaged in figuring out what loving our enemies needs to look like for each of us and then putting that into practice, can we call ourselves followers of Jesus?
Guideline #2 – Don’t fuel the fire
Schweizer also noted that this teaching matters because my enemy’s “bitterness is only intensified by my hatred” (endnote 6). When we speak out against what someone else has said, speak to the issue, don’t attack the speaker. We must not conduct ourselves in such a manner that others will perceive us as an enemy.
Christian author and speaker Brian McClaren is known for his simple but powerful approach in how to respond to those with whom we strongly disagree on a topic (endnote 7):
And when it comes to differing, do so graciously. My simple recommendation: “Wow, I see that differently…” Be ready with a sincere answer, from the heart, in simple language, without any barbs or jargon. Use words like “I care, I believe, I want, I hope for, I value.”
Guideline #3 – Find ways to draw near to your enemies
The Parable of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) was Jesus’ answer when asked who counts as my neighbor in the command to love them. His listeners were well aware that Jews and Samaritans were cultural and religious enemies during that time. This parable (like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teaching to love your enemy) reveals that our neighbor who we are to love is whoever we consider our enemy. But this parable also reveals the first basic step in learning how to love our enemies. The Samaritan can only see his enemy after he “came near him.” That simple act was needed to see his true condition which caused the Samaritan to have compassion for his enemy and then act on that. If I’m not close enough to see and better understand my enemy (or those who consider me theirs) how can I know what state they are truly in? This does not mean putting yourself in harm’s way, physically or emotionally, but seeking safe opportunities that help us understand our enemies better.
One way to do this is by using active listening skills to ask questions instead of always thinking of what we’re going to write or say next in an argument. We can empathize with, or at least acknowledge, our enemy’s emotions without agreeing with them on an issue. If they sound like they’re coming from a place of fearing the unknown or anger over believing an important belief is being attacked, affirming those feelings does not imply we are endorsing their underlying beliefs. Asking an enemy questions instead of making declarations or attacks can build an avenue that allows us to better understand the actual roots of why they believe something so strongly.
Guideline #4 – Find the value in your enemies
In March of this year Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, tweeted the following (emphases added; endnote 8):
No human institution decides who is human, who is visible, who is valued. Human sexuality and gender identity are a beautiful mystery. Trans people, like all people, are beloved by God.
Though her tweet was in response to transgender issues in current events at that time, the first sentence struck me in thinking about loving our enemies. To accept the truth of that sentence requires us to see all people as beloved by God, including any person or group whose value we’ve removed by making them our enemy. If everyone is enough as they are, then everyone must have value. It’s incumbent upon us as Jesus followers to embrace that and to identify and remove any blinders preventing us from seeing that value.
Guideline #5 – Prayerfully seek how to love your enemies
The well-known Prayer of Peace has become a touchstone for me over the past few years. I pray it weekly, trying to focus on how each line might be applied anew that coming week or confessionally for missed opportunities the previous week. As Jesus’ teaching to “Love your enemies” began to consume that same meditational space, it wasn’t hard for it to transform into being prayed for about my enemies. I’ll close this essay with something of how it sounds when I’m praying it that way:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace (to my enemies)
Where there is hatred (from my enemies), let me sow love
Where there is injury (from my enemies), pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O God, grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console (my enemies)
To be understood, as to understand (my enemies)
To be loved, as to love (my enemies)
For it is in giving (to our enemies) that we receive
And it’s in pardoning (our enemies) that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying (to ourselves) that we are born to Eternal Life
- Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition, p. 266.
- Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. I (Leviticus), p. 1132-1133.
- M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. VIII, “Matthew”, p. 195.
- Library of Congress web site – Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964)
- Eduard Schweizer, The Good News according to Matthew, pp. 133, 136.
- Ibid., p. 137.
- Brianmclaren.net essay – Thanksgiving table talk
- Twitter.com tweet – @ELCABishopEaton