I was at the airport getting ready to fly out for Easter weekend. I arrived at my gate early and got a nice seat by the window. After a while, I needed to use the restroom so I left my larger bag right next to my seat and took my backpack with me. When I got back, two young guys were sitting in my seat and the one next to it. My bag was still right there on the ground and I became frustrated. That was a good seat!
Now they’re all full! My bag was clearly right there. How did they not see it?! I thought, Who the heck are these guys taking my seat. At this minor inconvenience I was so ready to begin viewing them negatively and judge them, without even the thought of loving them. Then I remembered the passage I had been studying for today, Luke 6:27-36 and what Jesus has to say about those we don’t like. Let’s open our Bible and see what Jesus wants to teach you and me about God’s kingdom.
(Read Luke 6:27-36)
You Who Are Listening
Jesus begins this section by identifying the audience for his teaching. Just a few verses before, we learn that Jesus returned from a mountainside onto a level place and is speaking to a large crowd of disciples and people from all over the surrounding areas. He then began what is often called the sermon on the plain.
After his proclamation of blessings and woes at the beginning of Luke 6, without going anywhere he says “But to you who are listening.” Which leads us to ask why would Jesus need to make this qualification?
He is surrounded by a multitude of people who have either just seen him heal others or experienced healing themselves and heard him teach. Surely everyone is listening right? Well, let me ask you, how many of us once we begin to hear something that sounds counterintuitive, unrealistic, or something we disagree with, begin to tune out?
Jesus just flipped cultural understandings on their head through his message of blessings to the “least of society” and his woes to those who would be seen as blessed in society. So now Jesus is focusing in and speaking to those who are still on board, those who still want to live in this new kingdom that he is establishing. And to that end, he establishes a challenging expectation.
So, for those of us who want to follow Jesus and see his kingdom established, we need to be the ones listening.
Who Is My Enemy?
“Love your enemy.” This command wasn’t—and still isn’t—for the faint of heart. It isn’t for those who were hopping on the “new prophet” bandwagon. This is a tall order Jesus gives to his followers. Not only that, but this teaching also provokes several difficult questions that we have to try and answer. The first being, who is my enemy?
Jesus tells me to love my enemy, but how can I even get to that point if I don’t know who my enemy is? Growing up, I was taught at church that we should never hate people, because hating someone meant that you wanted them dead. Which sounds extreme, but I didn’t want anyone dead! So, I tried not to hate anyone, and that led me to never really think of anyone as my enemy because I thought if I had an enemy, surely, I would hate them!
So, then who is Jesus talking about? In our society, both inside and outside the church, I see two clear realities. For many of us, especially as Christians, we probably don’t have many personal enemies, people we interact with regularly that we despise. If I were to ask you who your enemies were, my guess is that there may only be a handful of you who could tell me. It sort of feels un-Christian to consider someone an enemy right? But culturally, Christian or not, we are very quick to identify impersonal enemies or national enemies. Whether they be opposing political parties or ideologies, or even people we have never had any contact with, we are quick to demonize and view them as the enemy. But what kind of enemy is Jesus talking about here?
Well, the word Jesus uses is ekthros and its found throughout the Bible. Most frequently when it is used, it is referring to an impersonal, national, or civic enemy—the opposing nation or political party, Rome for example. It is also frequently used for the personal enemy, the person out to get us at every turn. Given its frequent use both ways I believe that Jesus is incorporating both concepts of “enemy” when he tells us to love them. It is both the national enemy and civic enemy, the people that you consider out of their minds for some of their beliefs and ideologies as well as the person who is out to get you at each turn.
Despite our cultural inclinations to quickly identify people as the national or impersonal enemy, it can be difficult for us as Christians to identify people as personal enemies. I know this is true in my own life. There has only been one time I really considered someone as my enemy.
A few years ago, I was working as a pastor for a new young adult ministry. I wanted to get to know some of the young adults, so occasionally I would buy them lunch and have conversations. I took this one guy out and during lunch he brought up some difficult topics that we had talked about earlier in the life group. Throughout this conversation we came to the realization that we interpreted certain scriptures differently and had a different hermeneutic for approaching Scripture. Totally fine! We can have different means of interpretation and disagreement while maintaining relationships.
Or so I thought until an email was sent. I found out from my boss that this guy had sent an email to someone at the church which was then forwarded to my boss. In it, he had a completely different interpretation of our lunch. He accused me of holding Scripture in contempt and twisted my words making me out to be an awful person who took him out to lunch to debate him. I was stunned. Not only because of how shocking and blindsided I was by his email, but also how he didn’t send this to me, but talked to someone else. I wish I could say the story got better, but over the next few months he would not talk with me and instead corresponded with my boss and eventually said that he too was holding Scripture in contempt and was against God. This got out of hand fast and I came to the realization that I considered him my enemy.
This was a hard realization to come to and one that I didn’t like making especially since I was his pastor! It felt so wrong to me. I mentioned that I don’t really consider anyone my enemy besides this instance. But maybe I should. I know that sounds shocking coming from preacher and might feel very anti-Jesus but hear me out.
When we identify people as our enemies, it changes things. When I came to identify this young adult as my enemy, it changed how I looked at him, it changed how I prayed for him, and how I acted towards him. It caused me to ask God regularly to help me love him. I considered him my enemy and was called to this expectation of loving him despite my displeasure with the idea.
If we fail to identify people as our enemies, we deny this teaching of Jesus. If we don’t think we have any enemies, we are deceiving ourselves. I’m sure each one of us can come up with a list of people whom we don’t want to pray for or who we don’t want to bless in any sense of the word, but we won’t call them our enemy. Our enemy is anyone or anything whom we don’t want to love. When we don’t honestly admit that they’re enemies, we proudly say, “This passage doesn’t apply to me, I don’t have to follow it.”
So, I ask, who is your enemy? When we identify them, we force ourselves to reconcile with Jesus’ teaching here. Which leads to the second question this passage brings up: What does it look like to love our enemies?
How Can I Love My Enemy?
Thankfully Jesus helps us answer that question too. Jesus are you sure? Do I really have to do this? Jesus gives these four imperatives to those who are listening on how to respond to our enemies. Jesus is once again overturning conventional norms and asking us to respond to our enemies in an unorthodox way.
It reminds me of this scene from The West Wing. If you haven’t seen it, it is a show about the West Wing of the White House and the inner workings of the presidential administration. It is a tremendous show that follows President Bartlet and his cabinet as they navigate all the challenges of being president. In one episode, an American plane is shot down by an enemy and this infuriates President Bartlet, especially because his new doctor was on it and he had a newborn baby at home. President Bartlet walks into the “situation room” where all his generals and advisors are, and they begin briefing him on their ideas for how to respond proportionately. The room gets heated and President Bartlet asks what is the virtue of a proportionate response? To which the general replies by asking what else is there. President Bartlet proclaims, “The disproportionate response! Coming back with total disaster!”
In these verses, I believe Jesus is calling us to a disproportionate response towards our enemies. Now unlike President Bartlet, he doesn’t mean with even more violence and destruction. Instead, Jesus calls us not to reciprocate in kind, but to respond with generosity. Jesus calls us to love our enemies generously.
What do I mean by that? Jesus first calls us to the four commands that he gives at the beginning, to love, do good, bless, and pray. These commands call us to action. Love is not an intellectual conclusion or strictly a feeling we have. As Bob Goff famously wrote an entire book on the topic, Love Does. Love is an action that we choose to do. When Jesus calls us to love one another as he has loved us, he calls us to live like he lived, to do good to others, and see them elevated and succeed. The love that Jesus calls us to is one that moves, one that does, and one that is generous.
Jesus then gives us practical examples of what it looks like to love our enemies generously in verses 29-30. When someone slaps us on the cheeks, turn to them the other. While there has been some debate over what Jesus is talking about here, whether this slap is an injury to honor, or an actual blow to the face, Jesus isn’t focusing on the type of assault, but on the response. We are to disproportionately respond to the assault with an offering of generosity, not resistance. Responding this way doesn’t reciprocate evil, but instead chooses to reject the cycle of evil with love.
The second part of this illustration further reveals Jesus' desire for his followers: To love generously.
If someone takes our coat, don’t withhold the shirt, but give to them without restraint. This imagery elicits the idea of becoming naked before our enemies, before the evil before us. While this appears counterintuitive, this generous love ceases to offer resistance in order to eliminate the cause for aggression. Michelle Obama once said that, “When they - in this case our enemies - go low, we go high.” Jesus is calling us to a higher ethic, one where we love our enemy with overwhelming generosity.
This seems so foolish and hard to think that it actually works and that it’s a good idea. But when we look back throughout history we see evidence of this power of love transform our world. Gandhi responded to injustice in his time by peacefully resisting aggressors and shamed them into repentance. His actions forced them to reconcile with the evil within themselves which ultimately led to the liberation of India from British rule. Martin Luther King Jr. led peaceful protests that shook our nation in the best way and led to groundbreaking civil rights for humanity.
This generous love towards our enemies is summed up in verse 31. The moral standard of the world at that time—and often still is today—is “Do to others what they do to you.” Someone slaps you in the face, you slap them right back. But once again Jesus bucks convention and invites his followers to a higher moral order. Do to others what you want them to do to you. Jesus places the responsibility on us to not simply refrain from evil, but to model generous love towards our enemies.
Now, I know Jesus is already asking a lot of us—to love our enemies generously. This is hard to do, but it is a worthy and world transforming practice. But there’s one more piece to it that we need to see if we are to fully love our enemy.
Loving Generously Without Expecting Reciprocity
Within our world there is a commonly understood law of psychology. It is used throughout the business world, but we also see it in our everyday lives. What I’m talking about is the law of reciprocity. This is basically the idea that when someone does something good for us, we have a deep-rooted desire to return the favor. You scratch my back and I scratch yours.
There's a scene in the The Office where one of the characters, Dwight, brings in bagels for everyone. Now, he is doing this in order to solicit favors from his coworkers, but one of them, Andy, is so taken with his kindness, and can’t stand being outdone with politeness, that he reciprocates by shining Dwight’s briefcase. This escalates into a feud where they continually try and one up the other with reciprocated kindness for the rest of the episode.
This law makes sense! It’s natural to love those who love us and be good to those who are good to us. However, Jesus is establishing a new reality, a new way of living that distinguishes those of the kingdom from the rest of the world. This is where yet another difficult calling comes into our lives. For you and I who want to see God’s kingdom established here on earth, who are listening to Jesus’ words, then we are to love generously without expecting reciprocity.
Jesus upends the law of reciprocity here and says that, while there is nothing wrong with loving those who love us, citizens of his kingdom will take the extra step to love generously without expecting reciprocity. Jesus hammers this idea home with the refrain “What credit is that to you?” What credit is it to us to do what is easy? To do what is normal in the world? He connects this frame of mind and action to the “sinners.” Jesus doesn’t mean the morally corrupt here, because by ethical standards these are all virtuous things. So Jesus is using it hyperbolically to refer to ordinary people.
But those who want to be a part of God’s kingdom won’t have ulterior motives in giving, doing good, or loving. You and I who are called into God’s kingdom are called to love without strings attached, especially our enemies.
Jesus outlines the results of this kind of love. If we live this way and love generously without expecting reciprocity, then we will be rewarded as children of God. We are children of God when we imitate his character. Jesus says that God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, that the Father is merciful and we too need to be merciful. And it is true!
Jesus’ own life demonstrated the power of this love. The whole Bible is a story of God loving his enemies. You and I were enemies of God in our sin and God constantly and generously loved us even when it hurt him so badly. So much so to the point that he gave his Son, naked on a cross, pierced and subjected to death on our behalf. Let us be recognized by God and by our enemies as his children by loving generously without expecting reciprocity.
So how do we do this? Jesus talked about his yolk being easy and his burden light, but this feels really difficult to do! So, here are three things we can begin to do.
Identify Your Enemies
The first thing that you can do to begin loving generously without expecting reciprocity is to begin to identify who your enemies are. Honestly consider people in your life who you really don’t get along with. Think about the personal and impersonal enemies, the national, civic, or religious groups you consider an enemy.
Don’t let the fear of sounding “unchristian” by calling someone an enemy deter you because remember, when we identify someone as an enemy it changes how we look at them and we are called to follow Jesus.
Pray - Imprecatory psalms to start. Prayer changes the way that we view people.
The second thing is to begin to pray for your enemies. I had a professor contend that when we pray, most often the change that occurs is within ourselves. It changes us and conforms us to be more like God. I believe this is one of the reasons Jesus asks us to pray for our enemies, because we cannot continue to hate them as we pray for them.
Maybe that sounds too difficult. Maybe your enemy is someone who has really hurt you like an abuser, someone who has or is harming you right now. If that's you, I want to encourage you to pray differently. I know how hard it is to pray for your enemy, especially if they’re close to you. I want to suggest you pray the imprecatory Psalms. These are psalms that call for God’s anger, destruction, and justice to befall on the other person. I know this might sound strange, but the Psalms are our prayer book, and they don’t shy away from these realities. When we pray these prayers on our enemy, we are placing judgement and justice in God’s hand, and not ours. Over time, I believe that our hearts begin to change and so then do our prayers. So pray for your enemies by placing their future in God’s hand and not yours.
The third thing is to act generously. Live into this challenging call on our lives to generously love our enemies. It isn’t enough to think on these things and have an internal attitude. It is necessary for us to put it into action. Maybe that looks like getting coffee for the coworker you can’t stand. Maybe it looks like not fighting for your right to be correct. Whatever it is, take Jesus’ words seriously here and seek the greater good for your enemy. It won’t be easy, if it was we would see a whole lot more people doing it, and in fact it might be painfully difficult. But it is worth it and changes the world around us. When we love generously without expecting reciprocity, we further establish God’s kingdom on earth and are truly children of God.
There is a story from recent years that has embodied this idea of loving our enemies. In 2019 off-duty officer Amber Guyger entered Botham Jean’s apartment, thinking it was her own, shot and killed him. In the courtroom, after being sentenced to 10 years in prison for murder, Botham’s younger brother Brandt took the stand. While looking at and addressing the woman who murdered his brother, he acknowledged the pain she caused, but then said that he hoped that she goes to God with all the guilt and pain that she caused. He then says that he forgives her, that he loves her just like anyone else, and that he wanted the best for her and that she give her life to Christ. If anyone could be considered an enemy, Amber was surely Brandt’s for murdering his brother. And yet, in this moment, he chose to live into Jesus’ words and love his enemy generously without expecting reciprocity. May you and I be so brave, be so Christlike to love our enemies the same.
Zak Flowers is a lifelong learner who loves exploring new disciplines, such as fishing and knitting, as well as gaining new skills which is serving him well as he journeys into a new role as a Speech & Debate and Bible teacher at Valor Christian High School.