Love Your Enemies

Love your enemies. Do good to those that hate you. Do to other people as you would have them do to you. It’s such a famous idea, and so central to Jesus’ life and teaching. I wonder if I’m correct in saying that it is in fact unique to Christianity?

In Judaism, there is, of course, a similar idea. There is a Talmudic story regarding Hillel the Elder. He was apparently asked by a gentile who was considering converting to Judaism, to recite the Torah while standing on one leg. To which this revered teacher apparently replied “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.” I’m not sure whether he did actually stand on one leg whilst doing it.

Hillel the Elder from the Knesset Building in Jerusalem, image from wikipedia.com

The fact that it is likely that the story is apocryphal,[1] probably dating from at least 200 years after Hillel, doesn’t reduce its striking similarity, but also its even more striking difference.

To begin with, it is something we could all get behind. It is a measured, reasonable, sensible approach. Don’t do to people what you wouldn’t like them to do to you. Don’t be actively horrible. It is very like the basic idea of the sort of political liberalism that shapes our own culture. Do whatever you want, but don’t harm other people.

It has the advantage of a degree of civilizational safety: if we all just refrain from hurting one another, then everything will be fine. This applies especially to governments: a lot of our human rights are to do with the government leaving us alone. The right to free assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and so on are large-scale out-workings of a similar sort of idea to that of Hillel.  Free minds, and free markets, as the solution to all our problems.

But while the ideas are similar, they aren’t the same. A podcast I listen to described it as the difference between not punching someone in the face on the one hand, and building them a hospital on the other.

Not punching someone in the face, particularly when one feels so strongly that they deserve it – or not gossiping about them behind their backs or running them down even though they strongly need to be taken down a peg or two – is hard enough.

Actually loving an enemy? That’s something else entirely.

The idea that we flourish as human beings, both as individuals and societies, just by not interfering with each other is idiotic. It leaves a lot of important things out. Again, perhaps it’s just me, but I suspect none of us would be here if our parents had not interfered radically in our lives as children – often in ways which did not please us at the time. For instance, there’s the time that my mother found me about to bite down on a wine glass. And the times that they prevented me from crossing the road whilst reading a book. And insisted that I wash, eat my vegetables, brush my teeth, go to school, and a million other things.

And there are a million other ways in which our society relies on people taking responsibility for one another not covered by the market.

However, the love that a parent has for a child is instinctual – and, of course, not always present, not always reliable. A parent that abuses their child arouses our indignation.

But a person who doesn’t love an enemy – we, of course, find that perfectly understandable.

Because, when you get right down to it, it is hard to even want to love our enemies. In fact we don’t even want to admit that we have enemies.

A week or so ago I was at a training day, and was flipping through the prayer resource that had been used for the opening worship. It had a lot of introductory material, which I was leafing through, until I came to a section entitled “love your ‘enemies’” – the word enemies in quotes. In scare quotes, as though people who have enemies are some sort of ridiculous primitive, not quite up to the standards of the writers of this book.

I quickly put it down. It obviously wasn’t meant for people like me.

I have enemies. There are people in the world I struggle to forgive, whose cars I desire to key, who I would have to make an effort not to sneer at, were I pass them in the street.

Jesus also had enemies.  There were people in the world who definitely did not wish him well. People who plotted to bring him to trial, bribed witnesses to testify against him, persuaded the Romans that he was a threat, and, eventually, succeeded in having him killed.

And were presumably mortified that his followers insisted on claiming that he had risen from the dead. And so, like Saul before his conversion, got on with persecuting them as well.

Winston Churchill, a hero of mine, once said “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Sermon on the Mountain, Karoly Ferenczy 1896

Jesus didn’t say “don’t have enemies.” He said “love your enemies.” Jesus’ teaching is shocking, hard to pull off, feels like it almost comes from a different planet. But it is also shocking in its realism. A million miles away from the scare quotes “enemies” of that book that annoyed me so much.

He also said: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged.”  But he didn’t mean that we should adopt some anodyne “at dusk all cats are grey” relativism. To understand what it means to not judge we again need to look at Jesus’ actual life. It takes only a very cursory read of the gospels to see that Jesus was always taking issue with people and with what they had to say. It was generally against the religious, the righteous, the holy people, which is a disturbing enough thought for us to want to bury it somewhere safe and never come back to it again.

Jesus definitely had enemies. Jesus definitely did something that certainly looks a lot like judging. But Jesus also definitely loved his enemies: his final words “forgive them Father, for they know not what they do” sum up his entire life. This paradox is resolved in the fundamental fact about Jesus’ own character, the fundamental way in Jesus is the “image of the unknowable God.”

Jesus is all about love.

Jesus is not all about passivity.

Let’s pause for a moment here and think about definitions. What does the word “love” actually mean?

In our culture we are tempted to restrict “love” to romantic love. And, while inadequate, there is something to it. The eclipse of ego boundaries, the fact that what the beloved wants is therefore what you want for them – there’s something profound there.

But there are some issues. Firstly, it’s exclusive. Secondly, what if your beloved wants something bad for them. What if they are a drug addict? And finally, romantic love has its share of projection: falling in love is at least partially falling in love with your own image of a person, rather than the actual person themselves. Hence, perhaps, the twin phenomena of falling and out of love with someone.

Of course, famously, love isn’t identical with “like.” There is an element of choice, of action at work here. But the love of God, which we see at work in Jesus, is passionate. Jesus is the furthest thing imaginable from some well schooled bureaucrat making carefully considered decisions based on Benthamite utilitarianism – the greatest good for the greatest number

So I’m going to suggest that love is something like this: intending the best for another.

It is about something that is deeper than the surface wash of our immediate feelings, even deeper than conscious choice, though it will require that quite often.

It is more like an existential choice. A decision about how you stand in the world. Followed pretty quickly, if you try to actually live like this, the realisation that you can’t in fact do it.

But how much better our world would be if we did love one another –if we did intend the best for each other, see each other as a child of God, rather than as an obstacle.

Which leads me to a fundamental question: How can we become people who really can love our enemies, who can do to others as we wish to them to do to us?

And in turn, lurking below that, an even deeper question: how can we become people who even want to love our enemies? Or even people who just annoy us? Or even people who don’t particularly appeal to us?

I don’t have a direct answer to that. I think that part of the problem here is that we are aware of the burden that taking that degree of responsibility would place on us. That it would cost us too much. Not necessarily financially, but emotionally. Existentially. To love without expecting anything in return – how confident of your ultimate value you would need to be for that to be true. How confident that it wasn’t just wasted energy. That losing your own life will, paradoxically, lead to your finding it.

Winston Churchill as a young man in the 1890s

If I had more time, I would talk about the astonishing self-confidence of Winston Churchill. It led him to make some stupid decisions. But it also enabled him to see the threat of Nazi Germany when very few people could do, and to be an unpopular voice in the wilderness when it would have been easier not to bother. It’s likely that Churchill’s confidence came from being literally born in a palace, with a consciousness of his famous ancestors. He minded what his ancestors, and especially his father, would have thought of him. So armed with that, he didn’t need to care what anyone else said or thought.

It’s a limited thing to base your sense of self-worth on, and, as I said, led him into making some poor decisions. How much better to have a better basis, a stronger foundation.

Detail from The Last Supper by Tintoretto 1592-1594

Which brings me to Jesus. He really was able to love his enemies – and even his friends. He did this, I think, because he was so deeply rooted in God. He knew his scriptures, he spent time in prayer. He knew that he was fundamentally safe – safe in a way that allowed him to go into situations of sin and brokenness, and safe even beyond death.

How do we find that level of existential safety? It can only come from God. There are undoubtedly things we can do – worship, fellowship, teaching, Bible study, all those traditional things. Awareness and confession of my own sinfulness rather than pointing the finger at other people. But it’s not a mechanical thing, not like the exercises my physio sets me for my calf. It’s more a question of opening oneself up to God’s transforming love and power.

And to gradually allowing oneself to become aware that God is at work – not just in my life, but in the world.

This, fundamentally, is the Good News. God was at work through Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection. God is still redemptively at work in the world.  And, as a result, God calls on us to collaborate with her by loving our enemies, doing good to those who hurt us, and doing to others as you would have them do to us.


Sermon preached at Glen Iris Road UCA on 24/2/2019. The text: Luke 6:27-38

[1] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hillel/

One comment

  1. GREGORY GEORGE REYNOLDS · · Reply

    Thanks Alister, appreciated the quote from Churchill; and the observation that Jesus didn’t say,’don’t have enemies’.

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