“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.” —Matthew 5:43-45
Our attitude to those who do us harm or commit a crime against us cannot be simply a legal one. Though we must uphold the law and allow it to take its course, the attitude that characterizes our behaviour is to be love for our enemies, and our enemies are, in fact, our neighbours.
The Jewish people in Jesus’ time did some faulty calculations around the command to love their neighbours as themselves. Their attitude: “Love my neighbour? Fine, then I don’t have to love my non-neighbour, and especially my enemies.” Jesus understood their thinking, and when asked by an expert of the law, “Who is my neighbor?” He answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Samaritans were heavily ostracized by the Jews, because part of the Samaritan lineage was Assyrian. For 700 years animosity existed between them as the Jews hated the mixed blood of the Samaritans. In the story Jesus told, a Jewish man had been beaten, robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. A Jewish priest, going down the same road, saw the man and passed by on the other side. So did a Levite, but the one person who knelt down to help the Jewish man was, of all people, a Samaritan. He bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey, brought him to an inn and paid the innkeeper to care for him. Who was the neighbour? The enemy, the despised Samaritan.
The Jews had wrongly concluded that the command to love your neighbour implied that you could hate your enemy. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you” (Luke 6:27-28). Many people have been deeply hurt by bigotry, contention and injustice, so how are they able to keep those commands?
Loving our family and friends is easy, but Jesus asks a potent question, “What credit is that to you?” (Luke 6:32). We may delude ourselves into thinking we can love God without loving our neighbours, but when we genuinely love God, the command that we ”must” love one another is the ”must” of inevitability. It is in how we learn to love the people we are least drawn to that we find the quality of our love for God. The challenge in loving our enemy is allowing the love of God to govern every interaction with all our fellow beings. The golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” comes from Jesus (Luke 6:31), and it begins with us.