“Love the Ones You Hate”

Matthew 5:38-48

In the series “Upside Down: A Different Way of Living”

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Matt 5:43).  You may have heard this saying of Jesus in the news this week, specifically lifted up at the National Prayer Breakfast by keynote speaker Arthur Brooks, a professor of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, a conservative Catholic who describes himself as a “follower of Jesus Christ.”[1] With our President and Speaker of the House, various politicians and Christian leaders in attendance, he encouraged the love Jesus calls us to amid what he called a national “crisis of contempt and polarization.” He reminded the audience that Jesus commanded his followers to love, and not just to tolerate, their enemies.[2]

[Jesus said,] “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

-Matthew 5:43-45

Jesus defined enemies for us as people who oppose us and try to hurt us; as people who have harmful intentions and clear hostility toward us (the root word for enemies in this passage means “hostility”); and as those who literally persecute us.  Maybe we don’t feel that we have enemies, but do any of these meanings fit our attitudes toward others?  Our enemies run the spectrum from mild hurt, to serious offense, to one who has devastated our lives permanently. They might attack us physically or gossip about us or even persecute us because of our beliefs. They may be on the opposite side of the political aisle or hold an opposing view on a social issue. Even churches have people who oppose one another, sometimes with harmful intentions.

We might be tempted to think that Jesus was just an idealist, out of touch with the real world.  But remember, Jesus himself had enemies who opposed him; he was hurt, betrayed and abandoned by people; ultimately, his enemies conspired to arrest, convict and kill him.

Jesus knows that our human tendency is to justify our desire for revenge and our actions to hurt another.  We want to strike back against those who hurt or offend us or those we love.  We want to hurt them as much as they hurt us, maybe more.  Then we recall the words of Jesus we heard last week: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matt 5:22-23).  Jesus recognized our reaction toward anger and warned us of its seriousness.  He called us to reconcile with those with whom we are angry.

In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave a series of statements with the form, “You have heard it said …, but I say to you …” He cited examples from the Jewish Law or the popular teaching of the day, and then gave examples of a different understanding that was closer to God’s intention.  He was not giving a new set of rules for believers to follow.  He addressed our inward thoughts and attitudes, calling us to give them to God and let God shape them.

In each case, the way Jesus offered was different.  It was upside down from the way the world understands the issue.   Jesus taught a different way to treat those we don’t like, those we hate.  It’s hard to do, and it’s upside down from our instincts. 

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” (Matt 5:38) The law that was intended to ensure a balance between offense and punishment, has been misused to justify vengeance. Jesus raised the standard, teaching his followers not to seek revenge, but to use the offense as an opportunity to serve the offender, and in so doing, offering the life-changing love of God to them.

When he was in sixth or seventh grade, our son Josh had trouble with another boy named Ashton. When sat Josh and his friends at lunch, Ashton would take food from their meals. Josh struggled with how to respond. He wanted to ignore or avoid Ashton, but Ashton kept finding him. He felt like doing something mean back, if he could figure out what. Finally, after prayer and conversation at home, Josh decided what to do:  He went to school the next day, bought a cookie for Ashton, and when Ashton sat at the lunch table, Josh gave him the cookie as symbol of understanding.  Ashton was puzzled and didn’t know how to react. I’d like to say that Ashton changed completely; he didn’t, but for a moment, he experienced God’s love, and Josh found a sense of joy and peace.

Then Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Matt 5:43).  Sometimes we hear the word “hate” and we think, “Well, I don’t hate anyone.”  We even teach our kids not to say the word hate.  What is hate?  By one definition, to hate is to dislike intensely or passionately.  If we accept that definition, then there probably are some things we dislike intensely. 

For some, it’s a rival sports team – they hate the Steelers, the Browns, the Bengals; or they hate the Tigers, the Indians, or the Reds.  For others, it’s music styles – they hate rock, rap, oldies or country, traditional hymns or contemporary music.  Many of us hate the long lines in stores or airports.  If you’re like me, you hate when the dog gets you up in the middle of the night to go outside.

But what happens when the thing you dislike intensely is not a sports team, a music style or the dog, but a person at work, in your family, at church or who lives next door? 

Jesus calls us to do something different than our gut-level reaction.  He seems to be referring to Leviticus 19:18, which is the only verse in the Old Testament that says, “love your neighbor.”  It reads:  “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

Do you notice anything missing between Leviticus and what Jesus quoted?  There’s no “hate your enemy” in Leviticus. 

Some of the things we think are in Scripture are like that.  Some of the favorite “scriptures” in America are sayings like, “Cleanliness is next to godliness”, “God helps those who help themselves”, and “God will never give us more than we can bear.”  There’s just one problem with all these – they’re not in the Bible!  In the same way, the people of Jesus’ time were passing on something that fit their opinion rather than God’s word about how they should live.

Jesus continued:  “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:44). 

It might feel natural and even justified to hate another, but Jesus knows that hate never leads to healing.  God’s deepest concern is to heal our hearts so we can be in relationship with God and then be salt and light to the world around us.

Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies.  How shall we pray for them?  We might pray for our enemies by praying for God to change their attitudes and actions, but Jesus knows the power of prayer to transform not just those we pray for, but also us.  When we pray for an enemy, we acknowledge that, despite all our differences, we share something important in common:  we are both people created in God’s image.  As we continue to pray, we begin to see our enemy as God sees them.  We might begin to understand them, and even our hate can be healed by the love of God.

If anyone could be justified in hating, it’s Frank and Elizabeth Morris whose 18-year-old son Ted was killed by a drunk driver two nights before Christmas in 1982.  The driver was 20-year-old Tommy Pigage.  The first time the Morrises saw Tommy in the flesh was at a hearing about his murder charge.  “I was trembling all over,” remembers Elizabeth. “My nose was running, my legs were rubbery.  It was a sickening feeling to see that boy.” She admits she wanted him dead.

A month later the grand jury reduced the charge to manslaughter.  “We were furious,” said Elizabeth.  “This is when I became very resentful. Tommy was walking, talking, breathing, while my son, the innocent victim, was in a fresh grave.”  By October, Tommy was sentenced to 10-years; five years were suspended and he was given five years probation during which time he would have to attend alcohol counseling, spend weekends in jail and undergo blood testing for alcohol content.  He was also required to participate in Mothers Against Drunk Driving programs at area high schools.

Elizabeth heard Tommy speak at the high school where her son had graduated.  She expected Tommy to worm his way out of responsibility for what he had done, but was surprised when he didn’t make excuses. “I want to tell you about the night I killed Ted Morris,” he began.  After the talk, Elizabeth approached Tommy to talk with him, and she smelled alcohol on his breath.  The next day she went to talk with him, and he decided to turn himself in. He was jailed for three months, and his most faithful visitor was Elizabeth Morris, who was amazed that her feeling of hate was overcome by her desire to mother this lost young man as she prayed for and visited him.  Elizabeth and Frank eventually forgave Tommy; they began mentoring him, and they witnessed his baptism and profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  Tommy calls them every day on the phone to talk; he goes to church with them, studies the Bible and helps them around their home.  Tommy, the man responsible for the death of Frank and Elizabeth’s only son and their former enemy, has become like a member of their family.  Elizabeth said, “If Ted knew about this hatred I was harboring toward Tommy, he would have said to forgive. Ted would not have wanted me hating Tommy, that hatred eating me like a cancer from inside.  Now I can be happy again, I can go on living.”[3]

For the Morrises, God’s healing of their hatred came as they prayed and built a relationship with Tommy.  Healing doesn’t always mean that a relationship is restored.  There may be people who have wronged you with whom it would not be healthy to have a close relationship again. But you can heal.  You can live the rest of your life without those people having power over you because you dislike them. 

Hate is the most destructive thing you can do for the cause of Christ.  Some people hate in the name of Jesus, gossip, abuse, discriminate, picket funerals and carry out acts of violence against others.  And it is destructive for the cause of Christ. 

But Jesus said clearly that the way to healing is through love and prayer.  Love is a choice, and if we have any hope of a change happening in our hearts toward our enemies, it will depend on prayer. 

After all, love is the most different thing we can ever do.  If we love others – meaning everyone, not just those who love us – people will notice it, ask what is going on and want to be with us.

Jesus calls us to love our neighbor and pray for our enemies, so that we may be children of God.  He doesn’t mean we earn our way into the kingdom of heaven by praying for our enemies.  What he is saying is that we should conduct ourselves like the children of God we already are.  We know well the words, “Yes, Jesus loves me / the Bible tells me so.”  It is that love that makes us able to love others as God loves others.  God does not bless only the righteous with sun and rain, but gives the blessings of life to all people. 

When Jesus said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he didn’t mean that we should be sinless and morally perfect.  As children of God, he calls us to imitate God’s character and behavior.  The Bible tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). We are, therefore, to strive to love others, including our neighbors and our enemies, in the same way God loves.  When our lives reflect God’s nature, then we are recognizable as children of God. 

Jesus calls us to live differently, to live upside down.  Our only hope of behaving differently, being different or being healed is to let the power and spirit of Jesus live in us.  He wants to give them to you.  He wants to make you whole and to do it he will turn your life upside down.  May it be so.  Amen.

[1] Leah MarieAnn Klett, “Nat’l Prayer Breakfast speaker tells audience including Trump, Pelosi: ‘Jesus said love your enemies’”, The Christian Post, 02/06/2020,   https://www.christianpost.com/news/national-prayer-breakfast-speaker-tells-audience-including-trump-pelosi-jesus-said-love-your-enemies.html. Accessed 02/08/2020.

[2] Arthur Brooks, “America’s crisis of contempt: What I said in my address to the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/07/arthur-brooks-national-prayer-breakfast-speech/?arc404=true, 02/07/2020. Accessed 02/08/2020.

[3] William Plummer, “In a Supreme Act of Forgiveness, a Kentucky Couple ‘Adopts’ the Man Who Killed Their Son,” People, 08/26/1985, http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20091574,00.html, retrieved 02/03/2020, adapted.

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