God, please help ____ for being such an asshole
One of Christianity’s most annoying social teachings has to be Jesus’ famous instruction on loving your enemies.
It’s a challenge the young rabbi presents with unsettling confidence. In the book of Matthew, we read that Jesus (soon to perform another miraculous healing) is standing on a hill (some call it a ‘mount‘) speaking to the crowd gathered before him. There, he says to his followers “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.”
“Love your enemies.” A difficult instruction to be sure, considering it goes against everything I immediately feel burning in my bones when someone throws a snowball into my eye or calls me a mean name or writes cruel words about me. My very first urge when I’m sinned against is quite the opposite of peace and grace – it is honestly often the desire to retaliate, to use anger and maybe even violence to defend myself. So right off the bat, Jesus’ sage advice here is going against all of my natural instincts.
And maybe that’s the point.
In her new book, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber points out that the Old Testament never actually says to ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.‘ Jesus says we’ve heard this before not because we’ve read the commandment anywhere in the scriptures, but because the urge to like people who like us and hate people who hate us is deeply – and certainly evolutionarily – intrinsically woven into our most basic human DNA. Loving our friends and resenting our enemies is just the behavior that comes most easily to us.
“Pray for those who persecute you.” This instruction is another completely counterintuitive challenge to my regular response to evil. Jesus’ words here need a lot of unpacking because this all feels like such awkward and unnatural advice. But the professor doesn’t stop to explain the lesson right now, he continues his teaching:
“[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the 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.”
…did you catch that last part? As if it’s not hard enough already, Jesus rounds out his words on how to lovingly respond to our enemies with the simple command to “be perfect.” Not the easiest task, but we’re told to do it anyway.
One other thing that’s worth mentioning here: Jesus tells his friends that God causes the sun to shine down on both “bad people” and “good people” and that God sends rain to both “the righteous and the unrighteous.” The sunshine metaphor speaks for itself: this is a physical and spiritual sign of God’s blessing and hope for humanity.
But the rain? Isn’t rain bad and sad and indicative of God’s anger or disapproval? Isn’t Jesus speaking of rain negatively, especially in the context of the Genesis flood narrative? I think it’s author Rob Bell who points out that for Jesus’ original audience – for folks living in an ancient, agricultural society – rain is actually a very good thing.
Again, this is a heavily livestock and crop-oriented, agrarian economy we are talking about here. The peasants and farmers who gather to hear Jesus speak (both “the righteous” and “the unrighteous” among them) live at utter mercy of the laws of nature, completely dependent on the sun to shine and the rain to fall to create basic commerce to feed their families. The weather is more than an aesthetic conversational topic to these people (some weather we’re having, huh?), it’s a matter of death or survival. When God sends sun and rain, crops grow, security and welfare are secured, and heavenly blessings are rained down upon all of God’s creation.
This summoning of sunshine and rain, then – what Jesus is talking about here – is not some sort of punishment or veiled threat. It’s a promise of God’s blessing and total commitment to human flourishing.
It’s worth noting that the dominant religious leaders at this time (a group of clergy called “the Pharisees”) generally expected God to react to betrayal and evil in the same tired old ways that human beings have always responded to it.
They expected God to do like we do – to repay wrongdoing with punishment; to demand violence as payment for evil; to become filled with hatred when sinned against; to violently destroy the enemy at all costs.
The Pharisees probably expected God to send warm sunshine down on the righteous and the just, leaving the sinners and the unrighteous starving and forgotten and drowning in cold precipitation.
As it turns out though, Jesus reveals to us that this is exactly the opposite of what God is like. Loving one’s enemies is not just something nice that God does, it is one of the nonnegotiables of God’s character. Jesus actually holds so tightly to his teachings and attitudes regarding forgiveness and nonviolence that he refuses to rescind his commitment to these principles even to the point of death on a cross.
I think if we could ask the Pharisees (and indeed many other religious leaders) how God responds to His enemies, they might say that Yahweh is the kind of deity who “loves those who love Him and hates those who hate Him.” This school of thought continues to be alive and well in certain circles of the Church today. I’ve heard this sentiment expressed both explicitly and implicitly in segments of my own faith communities, and hearing it saddens me every time. (One of my former ministry leaders once went so far as to say that because God hates those who don’t truly know Him, we must hate them as well before we can ever really love them.)
However, the problem with the belief that God hates God’s enemies is that not one mote of this saying sounds anything like the radical and overwhelming love of the rabbi Jesus – the tortured man whose last words were not “you haven’t seen the last of me! I’ll have my vengeance yet!” but “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
In other words, the nasty concept that “God loves those who love Him and hates those who hate Him” is not an appropriate way to speak of the God described in the Bible, that Deity most perfectly revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, God loves those who love Him and loves those who hate Him. Saying otherwise is risking anthropomorphizing the divine – making God in our own image.
Because although it is not my natural instinct to love my enemies, it is God’s.
After all, we worship a God who sends his soul-healing sun and life-giving rain down on both the righteous and the unrighteous. This God, which Jesus spent his whole life testifying of, is a Creator who is nothing like myself in terms of how I react to animosity – not a petty, vindictive Being who reciprocates blood for blood, but One who instead repays evil for transformative good.
I know that none of this information really makes it any easier to love those who consistently treat you like shit, but maybe it helps explain why loving our enemies is so important in the first place:
We don’t love our enemies because it somehow comes easily or naturally to us.
We don’t pray for those who persecute us because it is the nice Christian thing to do.
We love our enemies because in doing so we’re actually speaking God’s primary language.
We pray for the people who are actively persecuting us because that was one of Jesus’ favorite pastimes.
We do our best to do all of this and more because the Mahatma had to have been speaking for God when he taught us that an eye for an eye really does make the whole world blind.