“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr
There’s a story of a truck driver who was sitting in a crowded roadside diner ready to eat his lunch. It wasn’t just any diner and any lunch. It was his favorite diner on the road and his favorite lunch. Just as the waitress brought the truck driver’s meat loaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, and green beans to his table, a motorcycle gang swaggered in the door. Most of them sat themselves at the table next to the truck driver but there wasn’t enough room at that table for all of them.
The gang members left standing turn to the truck driver and barked, “Move! We want that table!”
The truck driver calmly said, “I haven’t finished my meal.”
One of the motorcycle toughs took his dirty finger, swiped it through the mashed potatoes and gravy, stuck his finger in his mouth and said, “Hey, not bad grub.” Another gang member took the trucker’s cup of coffee and slowly poured it over the remaining food on the plate and snarled, “You’re finished now!”
The trucker stood up, took his napkin, wiped his mouth, walked to the cash register, paid for his meal, and silently walked out the door.
All the bikers started laughing and one of them made a comment to the waitress: “Ain’t much of a man, is he?”
The waitress simply replied “And he’s not much of a truck driver, either. He just backed his rig over your motorcycles.”
It’s easy to hear that story and cheer for the truck driver. He gave that motorcycle gang exactly what was coming to them. Revenge, retaliation, hatred – those all come naturally to us. But Jesus challenges you and me to live differently.
Jesus said to those who were gathered on that mountain with Him, “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.” (Matthew 5:43-44)
The beginning of this phrase is a quote from the Old Testament. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor.” (Leviticus. 19:18) Did you catch what was missing? There is nothing in the law that told the Jews to hate their enemies. Actually, God was crystal clear throughout the Old Testament how we are to treat our enemies:
“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.” Exodus 23:4-5
“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” Proverbs 25:21
“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.” Proverbs 24:17
So then, why did the people by Jesus’ day believe they could hate their enemies? I believe they had defined the term “neighbor” in the narrowest possible way. They defined their neighbors as their friends and family and the people of their own ethnicity. And, having defined “neighbor” in that way, it left room for treating everyone else as they saw fit. They figured that if they were to love their neighbors then they could hate their enemies.
By human standards, there are some people who are just not worthy of your love. We tend to have either a love or a hate relationship with the people we meet. But Jesus simplifies things for us. He broadens the definition of “neighbor” to include anyone you meet who happens to be in need. And He attacks this well-known idea that we can hate our enemies. Jesus says that we are to simply love everyone.
But to be completely honest, I don’t have what it takes to love my enemies; thankfully, God does. Loving our enemies is so foreign to us that the only way we’re going to follow this instruction is by asking for God to change us. I don’t think it’s by accident that Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, and those who persecute us. It’s through prayer that God changes our hearts. He softens them. He makes possible what was impossible.
We often look around and ask ourselves, “Who is worthy of your love?” God turns the question around and asks, “Who do you love who’s not worthy?” An enemy doesn’t deserve your love, but God says to love him anyway. And that leads to two very important questions. What does it mean to love? And, why should we love them?
What does it mean to love? These days love often gets defined as just an emotion, a feeling. And so we wonder how am I supposed to love that person when I’m mad at them, or I hate them, or I don’t trust them? How am I supposed to love the person who destroyed my marriage, or hurt my kids, or cost me my job? But love in the Bible goes well beyond how you feel about a person. Love, biblically speaking, is a decision; sometimes a decision to do something opposite to what you feel like doing.
For example, when your little child comes into your room at 3 o’clock in the morning and says, “Mommy, Daddy, I threw up,” what do you do? You get out of bed and comfort him and clean him up and change his sheets and soothe him back to sleep. Is that what you FEEL like doing? No way. But you do it because you love him. We understand that because it’s natural to love your own child. It’s not natural to love your enemy, but “love” in both cases is the same thing. Love isn’t so much about having warm fuzzy feelings for people who hurt you – it’s about choosing to respond in love against the natural feelings of hurt and anger that you do feel. It means having enough concern for another’s well-being that you overcome your personal desires. To love your enemy means acting in love toward them.
Another question that we ask is, “Why should we love them?” If we’re going to pursue something so contrary to our nature and our desires, we ought to have a good reason for doing so. Jesus tells us at the end of verse 44 and 45 why we need to love our enemies: “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.”
There’s only one reason to love your enemies. You should do it because it’s what your heavenly Father does. That’s just the way God treats them. When you love your enemies, you reflect the love of God you have received. Jesus gives two examples of how God does this on a daily basis. “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45)
It doesn’t matter whether we are good people or evil people, God gives us His sunshine. Even if we don’t acknowledge it belongs to Him! He gives us light. He gives us warmth. He makes our food grow. And He also sends rain. Rain is not a negative event; it’s another positive gift. God waters the whole earth. He doesn’t just supply food for the righteous, but also for the unrighteous. God gives without distinction. He loves people indiscriminately. And those are just two basic things that God gives to all people. The greatest thing that God gave to all people was forgiveness through Jesus’ death on the cross. When you consider why you should love your enemy, think of it this way. There is no one that you have ever met for whom Jesus did not die. There is no one you will ever meet for whom Jesus did not die. That same grace from God that was given to you is offered by God to all.
We love because God first loved us. (1 John 4:19) God loves the people who hate Him. And that’s why He wants you to love the people who hate Him. God acts in love toward the people who hate you. And that’s why He wants you to act in love toward the people who hate you. God defeated evil once and for all through an act of self-sacrificial love. Jesus was speaking about Himself when He said, “greater love has no one than this, than that someone lays down His life for His friends” (John 15:13). Paul captured it this way, “God shows His love for us in that; while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) And in a sermon from 1957 Martin Luther King Jr, preaching on this same text, said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” (Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love)
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). When we hear these words of Jesus, the temptation is to think of all the exceptions to the rule. God’s challenge for you is the next time you’re faced with a decision to act in love or hate toward an enemy, before you act, you remember how God has loved you. It’s only through Jesus that you can love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons and daughters of your Father in heaven.
In a world of darkness, be a light.