Among all the favorite foods my mother served up when I was a child, there were some that made me gag: liver and onions, for example, or cooked turnip greens. When Mother served something I thought for sure was going to poison me, there was one simple and firm rule. I didn’t have to eat the whole serving, but I had to try at least one bite. According to my parents’ logic, at least the food would be good for me, and I might even learn to like it. I never developed a taste for liver and onions, but I like turnip greens when I can get them (although that’s rare here in the North), especially when they’re served with pork chops and gravy and cornbread.
Today in the middle of his delicious Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-48) – we know it better in Matthew’s version as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1–7:29) – Jesus serves up a generous helping of cooked turnip greens (Luke 6:27-38). “Love your enemies,” he says, and “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again” (vv. 27-30).
It’s enough to make you gag. Anyone might be tempted to say: How un-American! We’ve got a system of law enforcement that protects me from my enemies and puts them in jail as punishment. In some places I could rely on stand-your-ground laws to kill anyone who strikes me on my cheek. Courts and juries help me reclaim any goods someone might take away from me. And we’re immersed in a culture that not only doesn’t think about loving enemies; it helps build social walls to separate us from them. Surely, Jesus, you don’t expect us to swallow this.
Maybe we’re not able to eat the whole serving. But if I take just one bite, I learn something, and I can imagine that one day I might be able to eat the whole serving. So I try another bite, and then another. And first thing you know, I’m discovering I have a taste for this dish, even if I’m not yet able to eat the whole thing. Here are some things I’m discovering about enemies and what Jesus tells me to do about them.
Telling me to love my enemy, Jesus doesn’t mean I’ve got to feel affection toward my enemy, I don’t have to like my enemy; he means I’ve got to learn to value that person. I need to recognize that even my enemy somehow has an essential role to play in God’s ongoing creation, even if I don’t know or can’t imagine what that role might be. I need to trust that without that enemy in the world, my own life and all of creation – and even God’s work itself – would be essentially diminished. And then I’ve got to act toward that person accordingly.
Thinking of my enemy that way, and of the role my enemy plays, opens up entirely new possibilities and leads me to lots of examples from scripture about how enemies turn out to be used by God as blessings. For example, if there had been no Goliath, there would have been no King David, and if there had been no Pharoah, Israel would not have passed into the promised land. Our enemies can sometimes trigger growth and progress in our lives.
God will sometimes use your enemy to move you to your next assignment in life. Elijah’s enemy, Jezebel, wife of King Ahab, drove him into the wilderness in fear and despair for his life, and it was in the wilderness where Elijah received God’s commission to anoint a new king over Israel and a new prophet in his place (1 Kings 19:1-18). Paul as a Jew was a fierce enemy of the early Christians and “persecuted [them] up to the point of death” (Acts 22:4). And God used Paul’s Jewish connections to support the explosive growth of the church. Your enemy will sometimes move you to your next assignment in life.
Loving your enemy can be part of your mission as an ambassador for God’s work of reconciliation. God sent Jonah into the heart of Nineveh, the flourishing capital of the Assyrian Empire, Israel’s enemy, to call its people to repentance and reconciliation. As an example of the reconciling gospel he proclaimed, Jesus cited the healing of Naaman, a commander in the army of Syria, another of Israel’s enemies (Luke 4:27). Jesus sent his disciples (i.e., the church) to proclaim the message of reconciliation and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19), including those considered lost and cut off from God. Loving your enemy can be part of your mission as an ambassador for God’s reconciling work.
What your enemy does to you today may be how God shapes you for a greater, unexpected use in the future. Joseph’s brothers became his enemies. They planned to kill him, then sold him into slavery in a foreign land. Joseph later understood that in their actions, God worked to send him into a situation that many years later would benefit many people and keep them alive during a severe famine (Gen. 45:3-11, 15). Your enemy may be preparing you to be used by God for a greater purpose in the future.
Loving your enemy may be how God uses you to heal your enemy and restore your enemy to wholeness. Those who are difficult to love, are often difficult to love because they have gone through difficult things that have made them the way they are. For their healing, what they need may be your love.
Writing in Redbook (3 April 2011), Terry Kruschke told of how as a child she became a bully, an enemy to others, and of what she really needed at the time. “There’s no excuse for what I did, but there is an explanation: I bullied because I was bullied. I was born with a birth defect [that] made me look cross-eyed unless I turned my head slightly to the left. Even now, eight years after having surgery to correct it, I still feel deep pain when I relive the moments when people called me a cross-eyed freak. I can still taste the slush puddle another bully pushed me into. Now I understand that my behavior was a cry for help, and I only wish adults had paid as much attention to my feelings as they did to my victims’. All I wanted was for people to stop tormenting me. I just didn’t know how to ask for that.” Your love, being valued by you, may be the one thing your enemy needs to be healed for fullness of life.
The command to love your enemy may seem like a big serving of cooked turnip greens. You may wonder how in the world you’ll swallow it. You don’t have to do it all at once. Just take one small bite. Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, hold your enemy in your mind’s eye, and repeat this simple prayer in your heart: “Lord, help me see this person as you see this person.” For twenty minutes, or for an hour if you can, listen with the ear of your heart for the voice of God. Try it again, another bite, one small bite at a time, then sit with what you hear with the ear of your heart. “Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” Jesus says; “give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:37b-38).