Tuesday, June 5, 2012

“Love Your Enemies”

    To us loving your enemies seems like an absurdity. By definition an enemy is someone you hate. How can you possibly love someone who hates you and has wronged you in some way?
    Apparently there were a lot of people 2,000 years ago who felt the same way. Jesus noted "that it was said 'you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy'" (Matt. 5:43; NKJV). The first part is from the Bible (Lev. 19:18), but it is not entirely certain who actually said "hate your enemy." It may have been a common folk saying, an (improper) inference drawn from the verse in Leviticus. But given the tense political situation in First Century Palestine, the reference could very well be to certain militant Jewish groups opposed to Roman rule, and opposed to any Jews who collaborated with the Romans. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls is a manual of discipline which calls for new initiates in the organization "to love all the Children of Light – each commensurate with his rightful place in the Council of God – and to hate all the Children of Darkness, each commensurate with his guilt and the vengeance due him from God."* Radicals like these eventually became the Zealots, and their armed resistance against Rome reached a dramatic climax at Masada in AD 73.
    The militant attitude displayed by the Zealots was not entirely without precedent in the Old Testament. Ancient Israel was a theocracy, and as such the enemies of the state could be construed as the enemies of God. In the Book of Psalms David could write, "Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies" (Ps. 139:21,22).
    The Christian church, however, is not a political state. Rather it is a collection of sinners saved by grace, and the church's mission is not the annihilation of the wicked, but the proclamation of salvation. What should the church's attitude be toward those who oppose it? "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you. . ." (Matt. 5:44). "Why?" you might ask. Jesus answered by pointing to the character of God Himself. By returning good for evil we "may be sons of [our] Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (v.45).
    One of the basic attributes of God is His mercy and compassion. When He revealed Himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai He declared Himself to be "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin . . ." (Ex. 34:6,7). And so it is that the prophet Micah could say "He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?" (Mic. 6:8).
    This leaves open the question of how David could say "Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate you?" What we see throughout the Old Testament is a tension between mercy and justice. On the one hand, if God is absolutely just He must punish sin, and as a result there is no hope for any of us, for we all sin. How could God exercise justice without destroying all of us? But how can He exercise mercy without appearing to condone sin? The answer is, through redemption. There must be a sacrifice to atone for our sin, and this God provided, remarkably in the person of His own Son. His death was prophesied in Isaiah 53: "He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed" (v. 5). This effectively enables God to punish sin and forgive it at the same time.
    If we are unworthy sinners saved by grace, if our sins have been forgiven through God's mercy, then we ought to have patience and understanding when dealing with our fellow human beings. Yes, there is such a thing as righteous indignation, but it ought to be accompanied by the humble recognition that "there but for the grace of God go I."


*Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr., & Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (Harper San Francisco, 1996), p. 127

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