Love Your Enemies
Remember, this wasn’t a friendly question asked by one of Jesus’ followers because he wanted to learn from the Master. When a religious leader asked Jesus a question it was usually a trap, a trick designed to stump Jesus, make him look foolish, and use his answer to discredit him—sort of like politicians do to each other today. They figured that whatever answer Jesus gave they could come up with a reason it was the wrong one. “Back him into a corner,” they thought, “and make him squirm.”
Their problem was that Jesus was too smart for them. Every trap they set for him, he avoided, coming up with the perfect answer to squelch his opponents and make them look foolish. By the time he finished with them, they were squirming, and the people, who they were trying to impress with their cleverness, were more solidly in Jesus’ camp than before.
Why is Jesus’ answer so perfect? He avoided choosing one of the Ten Commandments (which was the direction the scribe was sure he would go) and chose instead the statement that more than any other defines Judaism from the beginning and for the ages. “God is one, and you are to love this one God with every fiber of your being.” That sums up the first three commandments. Then Jesus added, “Love your neighbor as yourself”—and that sums up the other seven. If we love God we will place God first in our lives, will not try to replace or demean God in any way, and will honor God with at least the one day of the week set aside to do so. If we love God we will love God’s children—our neighbors—and we will demonstrate that love by treating them as we would want to be treated ourselves.
At the end of the encounter Jesus’ questioner had to admit that Jesus got it right. He was probably shocked when Jesus complimented him by saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Luke’s version (10:25-37) is different. The scribe (lawyer) doesn’t give up after the first answer. He asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus gives him an answer which was sure to upset most of those who were listening. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan—a story so familiar that we don’t have to review it here. Suffice to say that with this story Jesus identified enemies as neighbors.
Isn’t that the way life often works? We’d love to choose our neighbors, to only live close to people we care about, get along with, and/or agree with; but unless we live in an isolated community, walled off from everyone but those like-minded individuals we couldn’t possibly disagree with, that’s impossible.
Even if we could create such a community it wouldn’t isolate us enough from potential enemies. We’ve all known families where members fall out with each other. We know that family feuds can be the worst kind. They often go on for generations—well after everyone alive has forgotten the cause of the original quarrel.
In addition to family members we’d rather not have to interact with, there are people who live next door, or down the block, or around the corner who we’d just as soon not run into. There are co-workers who we avoid as much as possible. On a daily basis we encounter those who, if not outright enemies, are certainly people we wouldn’t consider friends.
Jesus says, “Love your neighbor.” He doesn’t say, “Love the neighbors you can get along with.” He says, “Love your neighbor—friend or foe, pal or enemy, love them all.” And it’s not enough to love them “for Jesus’ sake.” We have to love them wholeheartedly—and we have to love them for our own salvation.