What do you think of Marmite? It’s a savoury spread that seems to provoke strong reactions! People seem to either love it or loathe it. My wife Helen has it on her toast every day, but I have to say I’m rather less keen!
The makers of Marmite seem to have latched onto the polarising nature of their product, because their recent advertising campaigns claim that people either “love it or hate it”. Which one are you, I wonder?
The words “love” and “hate” are strong words aren’t they? Two strong words with opposite meanings. Words which both appear in the opening verse of our Gospel reading today: ‘But to you who are listening I say: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.’
These words of Jesus overturned tradition and challenged the prejudices of his first disciples. They are words that would have been uncomfortable and unsettling for those first Christians to hear. And, as we shall see, they are words that are just as challenging for us today, just as counter-cultural today as they were 2000 years ago. How can we love those we dislike? Why should we care for those who do us evil?
One of the first laws of warfare is to know your enemy. For centuries military strategists have sought to understand their enemies in order to identify their weaknesses, expose where they are vulnerable, and then go in for the kill.
Zealous first century Jews had a very clear understanding of who their enemies were. The Romans, who occupied their land, were top of their list, followed by Samaritans, tax-collectors and non-Jewish Gentiles.
This hostile attitude was a result of prejudice, national pride and mistaken religious rules. An attitude in direct contravention of God’s Old Testament law, because Leviticus chapter 19 explicitly commands the Israelites to “Love your neighbour”. It even goes on to say: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not ill-treat them. The foreigner living among you must be treated as one of your own. Love them as you love yourself”(v.34).
So when Jesus told his followers to love their neighbours he was re-affirming and extending the Old Testament law of love – extending it to everyone, even our enemies.
It probably says something about me that I was quickly and easily able to draw up a list of my potential enemies. My list of people it is tempting to oppose, avoid or ignore today. The sort of people who can make me feel angry, uncomfortable or under threat. My light-hearted list includes:
• Manchester United supporters;
• People who pinch my car-parking space; and
• Lorries driving in the middle lane of the motorway!
More seriously, there are types of people we are all tempted to treat as enemies. People we are tempted to ignore, avoid or actively oppose. For example, our list of potential enemies might include:
• those who oppose our Christian faith – aggressive atheists perhaps;
• Or we may feel alienated from people with a different background, lifestyle or political persuasion to our own;
• In our own community, we may view those who are antisocial or rude as our opponents or enemies;
• And finally, we may be tempted to avoid people whose personality just clashes with our own.
Just take a moment to think about the people who make YOU feel unhappy, uncomfortable or annoyed. As Christians, whenever we have such feelings we are to remember Jesus’ command to love them. To love those people universally, unconditionally and indiscriminately, however hard that may be.
So, we are to love our enemies. But what does loving our enemies actually look like? Is love just a feeling? No – Jesus isn’t just asking us to conjure up warm, sentimental feelings towards our enemies. Real Christian love is far more practical, much more demanding, than that. Real love of our enemies is costly and counter-cultural.
• Firstly, loving enemies is costly because it is so sacrificial. Loving our enemies can be uncomfortable and difficult. As we read in verses 29 today, loving our enemies may even involve turning the cheek or surrendering our shirts. Loving our enemies can be financially costly and physically painful.
• Loving your enemy is also radically counter-cultural. In the wider world, everyone loves people who love them. In our society, everyone loves people who can give them something back in return. In our culture, people usually love those who are most like them.
Jesus makes this point in verse 32 of our passage this morning: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.”
Christian love is distinctive because it is so one-sided. It is to show love without any expectation of it being shown in return. This kind of Christian love is as counter-cultural today as it was 2000 years ago.
So loving our enemies in costly and counter-cultural, but what does it actually involve in practice? How can Christians actually love our enemies on a day-to-day basis? Well here’s a couple of suggestions of my own, plus two from the lips of Jesus himself:
Firstly, loving our enemies requires patience and perseverance. We can be patient towards our enemies by spending time with them, investing in our relationship with them, not running away as fast as we can. We are to persevere with people we find difficult or different – just as God perseveres with us!
Secondly, loving our enemies we should include being generous to them. Generous with our time, our money, our skills or our possessions. We are to give without any expectation of return. As Jesus says in verse 30 today: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” And in verse 35 he adds: “lend to [your enemies] without expecting to get anything back.”
Lastly, loving our enemies must include praying for them. That’s what Jesus himself tells us to do in verse 28 of today’s passage: “pray for those who ill-treat you”.
So can I challenge us all to pray for any enemies we have? Pray that God will help us to love them more. Pray that they will appreciate our efforts to build a relationship with them. And most of all, pray that the love we show them they will point them towards the Lord Jesus.
Before I close, I think Jesus this morning gives us two reasons to love our enemies. Two motives to make the effort.
The first is motive must be obedience to the Lord Jesus. Our passage today is a command from Christ to his followers –not merely a recommendation or a word of advice. “I say” he says, “love your enemies”. So if we profess to be Christians – if we consider ourselves contemporary disciples of Jesus – then we will want to obey his words.
If the first reason to love our enemies is to obey Christ, then the second is to imitate our Heavenly Father. In verses 35 and 36 today Jesus encourages us to copy our Father’s indiscriminate, unconditional love. He “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” We are to “be merciful, just as our Father in Heaven is merciful.”
Indeed, we ourselves were all once God’s enemies – yet he graciously sent his Son to save us from our sins. God the Father withheld nothing in his desire to bring us back to him. We too should withhold nothing from our enemies as we seek to be reconciled with them.
So we are to love our enemies in obedience to Christ and in imitation of our Heavenly Father. But, of course there is one member of the Holy Trinity I haven’t yet mentioned – the Holy Spirit. And it is he who makes it possible for us to obey Christ and mimic God’s mercy.
If we ask him in prayer, the Holy Spirit can help us love the unlovely. It is the Holy Spirit who can give us the patience, kindness and generosity of heart we all need to truly love our enemies.
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