March 4, 2015: What Christ means by loving our enemies

Lent Day 15: What I Believe, Chapter 6 continued

“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.” Matthew 5:43-48

This is arguably the most revered passage in the gospels, and also the most confusing. It seems that Jesus equates perfection with the ability to love everybody indiscriminately. But be as perfect as God? It’s easy to see why the general consensus is that Christ sets a standard that is impossibly high.

Tolstoy says that previously he thought these verses were simply an amplification of the doctrine of non-resistance to evil. But once he discovered new meanings for the previous four commandment statements of Christ he had the feeling that he was going to find a deeper, more definite meaning in these words as well. Even for the newly enlightened Tolstoy, to love an enemy seemed simply impossible – a beautiful thought but unattainable in real life. “It was either too much or it meant nothing.”

The Church commentaries on this verse were especially unhelpful. “They tell us that it is hard to love one’s enemies – the wicked….and, commenting on Christ’s words, they add that though a man cannot love his enemy, yet he may neither wish him evil, nor actually wrong or insure him.” Okay. And yet: “It is persistently instilled into us that is our obligation and duty to denounce evil-doers, i.e., to oppose our enemy; and the various steps are mentioned by which this virtue may be attained; and thus, according to the interpretation given by the Church, the final conclusion is that Christ, without any ostensible reason, quotes the words of Mosaic law incorrectly, and has uttered many beautiful sayings that are, in themselves, useless and impracticable.”

Tolstoy was sure that Christ’s well-known and beloved words, words so central to what it means to be a Christian, could not be meaningless. He must have meant something we could really do. In the statement of the status quo, there are two opposing precepts: “love your neighbor” and “hate your enemy.” So, Tolstoy reasoned, the intended new commandment must have to do with the tension between these two precepts. He decided to find out exactly what, in context of Biblical language, is meant by the words “neighbor” and “enemy.”

The word “neighbor” as used in the gospels, he discovered, always means something like “fellow country-man” – as in one who is a citizen of the same country or perhaps a member of the same ethnic group. “’Enemy’ is almost always used in the sense of not a private but a common enemy – an enemy to your nation (Luke 1:71, Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36, Luke 20:43, and elsewhere.)”

In the Old Testament the word enemy “when used in the singular, always implies a national enemy.” “Christ speaks of the Mosaic regulations concerning a national enemy. He combines in a single expression ‘to hate, to wrong an enemy,’ all the various precepts dispersed through the scriptures by which the Hebrews are enjoined to oppress, kill, and destroy other nations.”

There is personal love and there is another kind of love for our community, school, nation, or football team. Tolstoy is sure that in the verses above Jesus is talking about love for a nation you belong to or other group identity. The opposing team or hostile country is enemy. We use the term enemy in this sense all the time. Jesus is telling all who would like to follow his teaching to cease making this distinction. This teaching is connected with Commandment #3 (see my previous post) because taking oaths of allegiance puts us in position in which it becomes very difficult not to harm our enemies when our country decides to go to war.

British soldiers in trench during World War I. From UK Telegraph.

British soldiers in trench during World War I. From UK Telegraph.

“Instead of an indistinct and indefinite philosophy, I discovered a clear, definite precept, which all have it in their power to fulfill. To make no distinction between one’s own and other nations, and so to avoid the natural results of this distinctions, such as being at enmity with other nations, going to war, taking part in war, arming for war, etc., and  to treat all men, whatever nations they belong to, as do our fellow-countrymen, was the requirement of Christ.” All this was so simple and clear that I was surprised I had not understood it at once.”

Tolstoy re-states the fifth commandment of Christ like this:

“Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as you do toward your fellow-country men; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.”

I feel like this is a little incomplete; it doesn’t quite get at all Jesus was saying. I know Tolstoy was going for brevity. But I figure if Tolstoy can restate scripture I guess I can give it a try too. We are all equal in the eyes of God right? My try:

“Do not consider people from other countries your enemies, even those who hate and persecute you.  See every person as worthy of love just as your Father in heaven does. God knows some are evil and some are good, and still loves and sustains them all. Anyone can love people who share their interests but I call you to live by a higher standard. I call you to love as God loves so that you may truly be his children and share in His inheritance of eternal life.”

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