“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
The world understands fairness to mean “getting even.” From the days of Hammurabi almost every code of justice includes the concept of retribution. When we are enviably mistreated, our life becomes consigned to the bitterness of nursed grudges and imagined retaliation. In worse cases, we even act on it and wage personal wars of various shades of violence. Against this reality comes Jesus who tells us to turn the other cheek, and more so, to “be perfect.” What are we to do with that?
In his book Out of the Depths, Ken Kovacs writes:
Jesus says, “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Now, the Old Testament never says, “hate your enemy.” It does say something about loving your neighbor, which then led to the question – but who is my neighbor? The logic went something like this. Yes, Torah, the Law tells me I am to love my neighbor. But if I determine who is not my neighbor—if I define the limits of what constitutes “neighbor,” then that person is my enemy and I’ll be free to hate him or her, without violating the Jewish Law because he is, by definition, not my neighbor. Sure, I can love my neighbor. But those filthy Samaritans and those godless Gentiles, the Law does not apply to them because they’re not my neighbors, so I can hate them. Do you see their logic?
Jesus says, “But I say to you…” Here again, an anti-thesis, the gospel as contrary, the contravening of grace that sets the follower of Jesus off in an entirely different direction, with a different way, a different outlook, with a different logic, the unsettling logic of love. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus turns the Law on its head. He undermines the prevailing false logic of love reserved only for “neighbors.” Grace contravenes—breaks, flouts, disobeys, and even violates the normal way of doing things. Love your enemies—not just accept them, not just put up with them, not just tolerate them, but to love them. And even—to go an extra mile—pray for the very one who persecutes you.
Why does Jesus set the standard so high, so difficult?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.
Ken’s weekly sermons at CPC can be found at http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/
D I G D E E P E R
Love of Enemy
The command to love one’s enemy (Matt. 5:38–48; Luke 6:27–38) is not exclusive to the Christian tradition. Jesus’ command forcefully summarizes, rather, a hope that has been common in many traditions from the wisdom of Babylon onward, namely, that hatred and revenge can be overcome. In Jesus, as in Greek philosophy, the aim is not a gradual overcoming of the idea of revenge but its elimination in principle. Already in Jesus’ own proclamation this radicalism has its basis in a reference to God’s turning in love to the world and humanity. In the Christian confession (Confession of Faith) this insight continues in the perception that God’s love for a hostile world, demonstrated by the cross and resurrection of Jesus, is the basis of all love of the enemy.
Since the proclamation of Jesus Christ aims to overcome revenge, it directly links love of enemy with renunciation of force. Jesus advocates herewith not only an ethos of mutual interaction but also a demand for a unilateral approach. The persuasive power of this demand lies primarily in the realism with which it applies to the situation of his hearers. Those of whom he demands love of enemy are first confronted with the fact that they have enemies. At the time of its formulation the demand can thus relate to the experience of the Jewish people, who were pursuing very effectively a strategy of nonviolent conflict resolution in their relations with Rome as an occupying power. The hyperbolic examples given by Jesus link such experience to the opportunities for freedom from force. Yet the demand of Jesus goes beyond this experience. Formulated in the most general way, it refers to the coming of the dominion of God (Kingdom of God). All enmity will then be at an end. This reference shows, however, that the experience of enmity and violence belongs to the old and passing world. Those who become followers of Jesus (Discipleship) have a share in overcoming this world.
The radical nature of the law of love of enemy does not lie in the extension of the circle of friendship to those whom one would normally regard as enemies. This application would simply be an invitation to render enmity innocuous. The point is that the enemy is now defined as one to be loved. The scope of the command is the religious and national enemy, as well as one’s personal enemies.
The Christian tradition has continually evaded the radicalness of this love of one’s enemy. The reduction of the commands of the Sermon on the Mount to consilia evangelica (evangelical counsels) works just as much in this direction as does their restriction to the area of private enmity.
The question of the political rationality (Reason) of love of enemy has reached its climax in the atomic age, thus revealing how dubious is the concept of a politics that regards the distinction between friend and enemy as normal (C. Schmitt). Expressing political enmity by the weapons of mass destruction makes it obvious that the attempt to gain one’s own security by increasing the risk of destruction for one’s enemy (the policy of deterrence) is bound to fail in the long run because it increases the danger of collective self-destruction rather than improving security. For a humanity that has now achieved destructive power over its own history, there is security only with the enemy, not against the enemy.
Such a policy of collective security is an insight of political reason; it forces us to see the political situation through the eyes of the enemy. This approach requires us to revise our picture of the enemy, the accomplishment of which must be a priority for the churches. The political form of loving one’s enemy does not consist in an illusionary denial of conflicts and clashes of interest but in an empathy that views these conflicts soberly and looks beyond them to find a sphere of common interests and possibilities of cooperation for the sake of peace.
Wolfgang Huber, “Enemy,” The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999–2003), 93–94.