You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor” and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even the pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.
This week I’ve been reading a book called Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun to my students. It is a wonderful book for the beginning of school because it has a little girl who is true to herself despite bullying. It also has a wonderful grandfather figure that encourages her to remember to treat others with kindness no matter what. I share one of my own stories after I read the book and explain how I had to suffer with a bully during school. She would make up things about me, do whatever she could to make people stop wanting to be my friend, and would make comments about what I wore or how I looked. After graduation, I figured I was in the clear. Until she started coming to my church as an adult. The kids usually wait in anticipation to hear if this mystery girl was any nicer to their new teacher.
Sadly. No. She has this uncanny way to make me feel like I am a vulnerable, frumpy teenager again – ready to run and hide to avoid her remarks. This usually gets plenty of remarks from the kids. “Tell her she’s mean!” “Can you be mean back?” “Can I say something to her? What’s her name?” I tell them that I figured out an even better way to deal with her.
I’m nice to her anyway.
If you could imagine a classroom full of eight-year-olds with their mouth wide open… now would be the time.
I imagine that this was a response similar to the one Jesus received after he gave this particular instruction during his message. Love your enemies? Pray for the people who are relentless in making your life miserable? Come on, Jesus!?! He can’t be serious… can he?
Oh, but friend, He is. And I can tell you from experience that it is one of the hardest things to do with full obedience.
The Old Testament scripture that Jesus quoted came from Leviticus 19:18. “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Originally, this scripture encouraged people to love everyone. The word neighbor here is the Hebrew rea (H7453) and means companion, friend, or fellow. Commentaries suggest that over time, the interpretation of this verse was narrowed, and the Israelites focused just on loving their fellow Israelites. If we consider this possibility, it makes sense why Jesus would come right out and instruct the Israelites and Pharisees to love their enemies. When Jesus says “neighbor” he uses the Greek plésion (G4139) which means anyone near – your fellow man, countryman, Christian, or friend. Make no mistake, Jesus wants us to love everyone – not just those who are our friends, or those like us in some respect. I also find it interesting in the word choice that Jesus uses for enemy. He uses the Greek echthros (G2190) which means an enemy or foe. It even goes so far as to imply that this person could be either passively or actively hateful or hostile toward us… those bent on inflicting harm. Sound familiar? An old high school bully, perhaps? Thanks for the reminder, Lord. I’ll love even her.
Even more than just loving our neighbors and enemies, the Lord points out that we should pray for them. Can I be transparent and tell you that this is the hardest part? Let me tell you about this word that Jesus uses for prayer. He uses the Greek prosechomai (G4336) which means to interact with the Lord through prayer. This is not just any ordinary interaction. This is a prayer in which, through faith, you are willing to exchange your “wishes” for God’s will. Back when I worked in children’s ministry, there was a lady who opposed every single idea that I had. She didn’t work with the children in any way but made sure her opinions were known. There were so many times I left church planning and committee meetings and cried all the way home because her words were so hateful. So, I did what any defeated children’s pastor would do… I sucked it up and wrote her name on a post-it note and placed it in my car. Every time I got in my car I would look at her name and say a prayer for her. I would pray that she had a good day at work, that her home was cheerful, and that someone would be a blessing to her during the day. At the beginning, praying these things were hard. Some days I didn’t want to pray for her at all. Selfishly, I wanted the Lord to change her – maybe He could make her kinder and allow her to see things from other perspectives. I wanted our church relationship to be better. However, my obedience did something I wasn’t prepared for. God didn’t change her. He changed me. I went from dreading seeing her name on my post it, to having commute-long prayer sessions for her and her family. I went from feeling defeated and bitter to extending grace. I was the one who gained the ability to see from a different perspective. Even though her attitude toward me never changed, mine toward her did. I think this is the heart of what Jesus means when he tells us to pray for our enemies and those that hurt us. Romans 12:14 says “Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.” Even when we are frustrated, hurt, or feeling defeated, our willingness to be obedient to God can do more than we ever expected.
So, we know that our neighbor is anyone we encounter, our enemy may be out to get us, and that we should respond with prayer. We can’t forget this love aspect. It won’t work without the love. 1 John 4:7-8 instruct us by saying “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Both here and in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the Greek word agapaō (G25) is used to show that this is a love that is exhibited in the social and moral sense. This love from God, agapē (G26), implies affection, good will, and benevolence. It is showing God’s love through our actions and words toward others. 1 Corinthians 16:14 uses this agapē when it says, “And do everything with love.” This is divine love from the Holy Spirit and is an overflow based on our relationship with the Lord. This ability to pray and love the people that hate or hurt us comes from a place that we can’t access on our own. We need Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and a good solid dose of grace to get us through day to day obedience.
This message couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. You see, over the past year and a half I’ve had a friendship completely fall apart. One day I had a best friend and the next day I was told that she never wanted to speak to me again. After 11 years, you can imagine that it shook me to the core. I tried to be friendly in public, but she couldn’t stand it. When someone happens to mention her name, or I catch a glimpse of her out and about, my stomach churns. I pray that the Lord helps me to forgive and that my hurt doesn’t turn into bitterness. But praying specifically for her to be blessed is a struggle. However, if I am a daughter of the King of Kings, then because of the love that He has shown me – I should pray for her. Emotionally I’m not ready to put her name on a post-it in my car. I promise you that if you see a gal crying on her way to her classroom in the mornings, that’s me. Say a prayer. The Holy Spirit is telling me that it’s time. I’ll let you know if praying blessings over a fresh “enemy” helps with forgiveness and relieves some bitterness. My guess is yes.
Before I leave you this week, one other aspect of these verses caught my attention. Did you catch that statement in Matthew 5:48? “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I don’t know about you, but I am far from perfect. So, this word nerd had to do a little digging here as well. Jesus was perfect. No sin. No mistakes. No catching his pinky toe on the corner of the dresser and saying something unpleasant. What is this perfect that Jesus wanted for us? Teleios in the Greek means “having reached its end, i.e. complete, by extension, perfect.” This “perfect” is about maturity, growth, and developing our lives to look more like Jesus and less like the world. It is a process and a spiritual journey. Over the course of my life, I can see how loving my neighbor, loving my enemies, praying for the people who hurt me, and practicing obedience is a journey that has taken years. I’m not close to being complete in this journey, but every situation that comes along is an opportunity for me to practice the changes that God is making in me. Will you join me in praying about an enemy in your life, and loving others with a Christ-like love? It won’t be easy, but I promise that God will be with us every step of the way.
Lord, I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to dig into your word. You have shown me today that I have grown in my love for others over the years, but I’m not complete yet. Please give me the strength to go through this next season of growing and the willingness to pray for my friends and my enemies. Please reveal areas where we need your guidance and grace and help us to show a love that comes only from you. Be with us even when it is hard and we don’t understand. Give us the courage to place our burdens at the feet of the cross and exchange our personal desires for your perfect and complete will. Remind us that you are right beside us and that you never let us go. We ask all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.