There isn’t a topic in the world that draws more attention and more conversation than love, yet love, in the sense Jesus described it is as uncommon today as in any time in history. Listen closely to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5:43-48. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of Your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Later when a Scribe approached Jesus with the question of what was the first and great commandment Jesus said it was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as our self. He then raised the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Strangely, there seems always to be an effort going to find a loophole in Jesus teaching. He thought if he could just define his neighbor as a fellow Jew then he could handle that. But Jesus pushed his whole mindset with the story of the good Samaritan, who cared for the man beaten and left for dead. The scribe had to admit it was the Samaritan who had really been neighbor to the hurting man. There are several different words used in the Greek text to refer to love and they don’t all mean the same thing. But each time commands like this occur the word is “Agape” which is a behavioral, unconditional love that demonstrates good will and beneficence to the other person. The person who says, “I love you” and then turns to do something to hurt you or put you down either doesn’t understand love or is simply rebelling against God.
Any sinner on earth can easily love those who love them and are of the same group and mind-set as them. It takes a Christian to love those who are different, who are enemies to us and who do things to hurt us. When Jesus foretold the fact he would go to the cross and die for us he explained that “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down his life for his friends.” Then Paul took it even further when he said that some would even dare to die for someone who was a friend or family, but “God commends his love toward us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Perhaps, the question that is more revealing for us isn’t “Who is our neighbor?” but “Who is our enemy?” Think about it for a moment. Who are the people, the groups that you can’t even think of or talk about without getting angry and wishing upon them some kind of harm? In our world it may well be those who are of a different political persuasion than me. But it may also refer to someone who doesn’t worship God the way I do or someone who doesn’t worship God at all. Sometimes our enemies are really anyone who is different from us, racially, in country of origin or even in what football or basketball team they root for. Obviously, the enemies Jesus had in mind were often those who do us harm, in that they persecute us, probably based on our faith in Jesus.
Lesson one, in looking at this Scripture is, that when the Bible commands us to do something, it doesn’t mean that the opposite of that is always true. Their mindset was that if they were to love their neighbor, it surely meant they were to hate their enemy. God’s view of the matter was that your neighbor is anyone who may need your help. Their mindset was our neighbor is a fellow Jew who is of the same religious party that I am. If you put it into our time it would be a fellow Christian who goes to the same kind of church I go to. Jesus challenged the whole thought process. His command was “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It seemed natural to Jesus that if you really loved anyone you would pray for them. So loving enemies and praying for them goes hand in hand. By the way if you start the conversation about or with someone with “I love you, but” then most likely you lied in the first part of the sentence.
Lesson two, how we love those who are different from us, whom we think of as enemies determines how others see our faith. Jesus said when we love and pray for our enemies we are children of the Father in heaven. He sends his rain and sunshine on the evil and good alike. So if we are going to be seen in the world as children of God, we must have some family resemblance. Hating and hateful people don’t look anything like Jesus or the Father. Too often it seems to me we are more intent on being like the Psalmist who prayed for the destruction of his enemies and that their children would be bashed against the wall than like Jesus who loved the unlovable like they were his children. How many times have you met someone and as you talked with them and learned who their parents or grandparents are you thought, “Yes, I can see the family resemblance?” As Christians it is that family resemblance that people are looking for. No wonder Jesus said it was the love Christians had toward each other that would say to the world that we are children of the Lord (John 13:34-35).
Lesson three, loving others affects how we greet and treat other people. Notice how Jesus put together loving people with greeting them. He warned of just loving those who love us and just greeting those who are our own people and said that was the way pagans, unbelievers, non-Christians act. His challenge to us is to rise above that unhealthy way of thinking and living.
Lesson four, be perfect like God the Father is perfect. Wait a minute Leon, we can’t be perfect. What is he talking about? Notice he had already explained the way God dealt with people. He caused his rain and sunshine to come on the evil and the good in exactly the same way in the same proportions. He treated everyone as important and as one whom he wanted to influence to come to him. When he challenges us to be perfect like the Father it isn’t a challenge to absolute perfection. It is a challenge to the perfection of treating all people with love and respect, no matter who they are, what they believe or what their politics may be. Let me be clear, if you are shouting hate filled messages toward those who are different politically from you, no one in the world is going to mistake you for a child of God. Followers of Jesus treat everyone with respect and compassion. Love your enemies and you will be able to turn many of them into friends in the process.