Love Your Enemies*
*Unless your enemies happen to be Democrats or Republican or Independent or Communist or Nazis or Muslims or terrorists or Pro-Abortion or Pro-Life or homosexual or transsexual or heterosexual, or unless your enemies are attacking you, your family, your country, or they want to take your stuff or your land, or they threaten you or they have killed a member of your immediate family, or a friend, or a friend of a friend, or someone who had you met might possibly have been a friend, or unless you work for the government…In those cases never mind.
*Jesus may not actually have said any of the above things listed under the previous asterisk.
Did you see the asterisk? Did you read the fine print? In advertisements I have learned to be wary of the asterisk. I know to check for the asterisks and to read the fine print. That fine print, inevitably near the bottom of a document, generally directly contradicts what the larger print said or promised.
In sports, the asterisk is a shameful thing. It signifies that some record breaking achievement needs to be clarified. Maybe the athlete was suspected of doping, of cheating. Maybe they simply took advantage of some change in condition that the powers that be believe would have equally benefited their predecessors. Either way, when someone sees an asterisk, they know that there is an exception, a caveat, a proviso.
I believe that we have grown so accustomed to seeing asterisks that we take the initiative to insert them into places where they aren’t. When you hear an offer that just sounds too good to be true you start to look for that asterisk with its qualifying remarks. When we read something that we believe flies in the face of reason and common sense we insert an unwritten asterisk that helps to make sense of what we’ve just read. We even do this with Jesus’ own words.
When we hear something that just doesn’t make sense we help Jesus out a bit. We add the asterisk and fill in the qualifying remarks that we believe must be there. For example, one place this happens is the instance where Jesus said that, “You’ll be able to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle before you see a rich man enter heaven.” (slightly paraphrased) Jesus actually said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” I remember hearing one explanation of that statement when I was in high school that sought to explain this camel and needle problem. It went something like this: “The eye of a needle doesn’t refer to a needle that is used with thread. Its actually a historical reference to a really small gate in Jerusalem. This gate was so small that a camel loaded with cargo would have to be unloaded of its cargo first, before it could pass through the gate. See? Problem solved. Rich people can get into heaven, they’ve just got to unload a little bit of their stuff first so they can fit through the entrance. Unfortunately, there is no evidence for the existence of such a gate in Jerusalem before about the 15th century, when some other inventive person sought to help Jesus out. The other problem with this interpretation is that in the context its clear that Jesus’ disciples assume he actually meant an impossibly small hole. They stopped him and asked the next obvious question. “If that’s the case then Jesus, who can be saved?” They were hoping Jesus would walk back that first statement. That he would share with them the fine print that they knew must be there. But Jesus did not correct them. Instead he replied, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:16-30)
That is but one example of a time that Jesus needed help walking back his statements. Here is another:
In his fifth chapter, Matthew records that Jesus spoke these words, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbors and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
Love your enemies. Let that sink in a moment. Love your enemies.
I can think of a whole host of follow up questions I would love to ask Jesus if I could get him to step up mike for a few minutes. I imagine Jesus standing at a podium surrounded by a dozen or more eager reporters in the moments after delivering that line. As the cameras flash and the reporters shout over one another to be heard, Jesus raises his hands and quiet descends on the crowd. He begins to call on the raised hands clutching their pens and paper.
“Jesus,” the first reporter asks, “You said that we are to love our enemies, but how are we supposed to do that? Where will that get us? Haven’t you seen the latest reports on TV? ISIS just beheaded 21 of your followers. Will love stop them? Won’t that just encourage them and make things worse? Shouldn’t we use force to stop them if necessary?” But before Jesus has the chance to answer he is drowned out by the flood of voices shouting questions at him again.
“Love your enemies.” This is but one of many difficult things that Jesus said during his time on Earth. My fear is that many followers of Jesus hear these words today, and others like them, and insert their own asterisk. They take the sting out of those words. They want to help him out of the bind he got himself into.
I wrote one of my seminary professors once about Matthew 5:38-48. I asked, “When Jesus says, ‘Do not resist an evil person,’ ‘turn the other cheek also,’ ‘and ‘love your enemy,’ how are we to read those statements?” My question stemmed from the fact that most of the time I hear people speak on these verses its like they insert a little asterisk. And that asterisk has the effect of canceling out what Jesus just said. I’ve heard people say, “Sure Jesus says that his followers are to love their enemies, but if you happen to be a soldier and those enemies are on the other side of the field from you, then that doesn’t apply. You have a duty as a soldier that must be upheld. Your vocation as a soldier supersedes that call from Jesus to love your enemy and pray that they would become your brother.” I asked whether it was appropriate to read these passages with an asterisk or whether they should be taken at face value.
He wrote back and said: “The first reaction we tend to have to Jesus’ words is to qualify them – perhaps in valid ways – and to argue for situations in which they don’t apply. So, what I’ve tried to do is ask people to simply stop thinking of the exceptions, and to think of all the situations where the teaching does apply. There are lots of situations where I am not supposed to repay evil for evil, where I am supposed to give without the hope or thought of repayment.” (Dr. Jeff Gibbs)
I found that to be great advice. Because of the sin that resides in me I know my first reaction to many of the things Jesus said is to qualify them. If I can insert my asterisks with enough skill then I can get out from under the crushing weight of God’s demands. I can save myself from wrestling with the tough things that Jesus said; from the things that might accuse me. Jesus ends this passage by entreating us to be perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect. Like the disciples, my initial reaction is often one of astonishment. “Who then can be saved? Come on Jesus. No one on earth can do what you are asking. It doesn’t make sense. Its not practical.” But Jesus looks back, and calmly replies, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” It is even possible to love an enemy and to pray sincerely, that one day they will join us in God’s kingdom as a brother or sister in Christ.