“But rather, I say to you who are still listening, ‘Keep on loving your enemies – keep on doing good to those who are hating you, keep on speaking well of those who are cursing you, keep on praying for those who are mistreating you” (Luke 6:27-28, my translation). The commands in these verses are all present imperatives addressed to “you all” rather than “you” singular.
In the Sermon on the Plain, the Lukan author portrays these actions as the ongoing elements of what it means to follow Jesus. Remember, after all, that our text comes after the calling of the “apostles” and is addressed to the whole crowd of disciples (including us). The beginning of this description is “Keep on loving your enemies.” Perhaps not the best marketing strategy, either in the first-century Mediterranean world or in the twenty-first century American world.
Who are these “enemies” about which Jesus speaks? Malina and Rohrbaugh discuss the concept as they comment on Zechariah’s song in Luke 1. In his prophecy, Zechariah (filled with the Holy Spirit) declares that the coming Davidic messiah would “save us from our enemies” (verse 71). I will quote their whole paragraph in this regard.
“The term ‘enemies’ need not be understood in the narrowly political sense of Roman oppression. To a peasant, enemies are all those who try to get what is rightfully fully his. They are those who destroy his honor, take his land, undermine his family, and threaten his women. It would have made little difference to peasants whether the ones doing this were Romans, the Jerusalem establishment, or dangerous neighbors” (page 292).
Jesus’ ongoing command to love our enemies is not cast, therefore, on a national or global stage. It is intensely personal and local. We all have enemies, whether we wish to admit that or not.
I’m a fan of British procedural crime dramas. They illustrate the typical progression of an investigation into a murder. One of the early questions is always, “Did the victim have any enemies?” When other characters protest that, in fact, everyone loved the victim and that the victim had no enemies that anyone could imagine, then I know something particularly slimy and stinky is afoot. We all have enemies. We modern (and especially White) folks are just too “nice” to admit to this basic and harsh human reality.
I have enemies. I have done things to create that enmity on the part of some. I have suffered at the hands of others and now feel enmity toward them. I am a threat and obstacle to people I’ve never met and will never meet. But I am still part of a demographic or identity group that deserves the enmity of others. Whether I participate in politics or war-making or not, I am a citizen of a country that has enemies. I’m stuck with them.
I have enemies. And Jesus’ ongoing command is that I (and we) keep on loving those enemies. Great.
There’s no wiggling off the hook with some textual or exegetical sleight of hand. Warren Carter reviews the debate of the authenticity of the saying and notes that the consensus has found this command to come from the lips of Jesus himself. So, Carter asks, what does Jesus mean in giving this command?
Carter reviews the suggestions commentators have made regarding the target of the word “enemy,” the scope of this loving business, and the social context(s) in which this saying would be applicable. There is no consensus reply to these concerns. Instead, Carter writes, “The quest to find one applicable situation, however, seems futile. Part of the command’s aphoristic quality is not only its exaggerated and provocative quality in questioning everyday expectations concerning revenge or limited love,” Carter continues, “but also its open-endedness or indeterminacy” (page 15).
That vagueness of application is all well and good, but this means that making specific the application then falls to us as Jesus’ followers. Carter suggests that “the very open-endedness of the command invites or perhaps better, requires, discourse about how it engages particular human and societal situations. It is a command in search of elaboration, dialogue, discernment. It provides direction but leaves the itinerary to the travelers” (page 15).
So much for, “Well, my Bible says…”
The command to love, Carter observes is followed by three “elaborations” (page, 16): do good, bless, and pray. Then come three commands: turn the cheek, give the shirt, donate to beggars, and don’t ask for returns. This is all more than a little weird, Carter continues, “in that benefaction or doing good to an enemy differs considerably from the more conventional practices of revenge, injury, and hate.”
Thank you, Captain Obvious. But then, that’s why biblical scholars get the big money, right?
The three “elaborations” elaborate what it means to love and who the enemies are. To love is to do good to, bless, and pray for those who are the enemies. Enemies are those who hate, curse, and mistreat us. The elaborations are then illustrated by three examples of enemy-loving behavior. Carter suggests that these examples are marked by five characteristics (pages 17-18).
1. “The dominant power dynamic involves one person seeking their own benefit at the expense of the other.”
2. “The examples specify the enemies’ actions.”
3. “Violence marks the enemies’ actions.”
4. “Each statement asserts an appropriate but unconventional counter-action… These actions reverse the assertions of power, display another form of interaction, and invite the enemies to behave accordingly.”
5. “These counter-actions introduce an element of the bizarre to the examples. They make explicit the surprising counterintuitive, countercultural way of responding inherent in the ‘love your enemies’ command.”
In assessing these four examples, Carter refers to the work of James Scott “on the covert yet self-protective ways that the powerless protest humiliating actions. Such acts of protest function not to change the system but to preserve and express dignity in the midst of systemic and personal degradation” (pages 17-18). Offering the other cheek is an assertion of dignity when humiliation is intended. Giving the shirt shows the thieves for what they are. Giving to everyone means stepping away from selective and self-interested charity. Not asking for returns turns expropriation into a gift.
“Such responses refuse the intended humiliating effect, respond to the act of power or force with an act of gift, and invite similar interaction,” Carter argues. “They pose questions to and about self-benefiting and costly (elite?) behavior in terms of its impact on others. These four examples stimulate the imagination for disciples to create similar dignity-asserting and ‘loving,’ but not avenging, responses in other instances of humiliation” (page 18).
These examples then lead to the “Golden Rule.” The rule is followed by three rhetorical questions that make it clear (as we have noted in previous posts) that this rule is not about self-serving reciprocity. Instead, the interpretation comes in verse 35, where we find the same three verbs as in verses 32-34. These verbs “emphasize benefaction without the expectation of positive return” (page 19). The result is that in doing such actions we imitate and embody the character of God.
As Alan Kirk noted, this benevolence is not conditioned on the nature of the response. It is offered regardless of the response. And that indifference to the nature of the response is the standard of behavior not only for God but for any and all who are children of God. This conclusion is then summarized in verse 36.
“The Gospel elaborations of Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemies’ prohibit some behaviors (responding in kind) and provide a general direction comprising responses marked not by reciprocity but by indiscriminate love and doing good,” Carter concludes. “Moreover, these canonical elaborations of the command suggest that contemporary disciples seeking to imitate and embody God’s ways always have the (communal) task of elaborating them in order to identify specific behaviors for specific circumstances” (page 21).
Justo Gonzalez puts it this way. “The divine perfection that the disciples are to imitate is the perfection of an all-embracing mercy. Furthermore, even though we often tend to think that the basis for the Christian ethics of love is the Golden Rule, in the final analysis the basis for Christian ethics is the very nature and action of God” (Kindle Location 1809). The Golden Rule in the Lukan account is not really “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It is rather, “Do to others as God would do.”
This is, not coincidentally, the interpretation that Martin Luther brings to Christian ethics. To be clear, Luther honors the Golden Rule in his own behavior and writing as much in the breach as in the keeping of the rule. That being said, Luther argues that “the golden rule challenges us human beings to love our neighbors for their sake, not for the sake of any good or advantage we might gain from them” Mannermaa, Kindle Locations 927-928).
Love of enemies is the clearest application of doing to others as God does to me/us. I don’t like it. I don’t do it well. I would rather gouge my own eyes out most of the time than do it, but that doesn’t change a thing.
References and Resources
Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Butler, Octavia. https://legacy.npr.org/programs/specials/racism/010830.octaviabutleressay.html. A Scott Simon interview with Butler related to this essay can be found at https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1128335.
Carter, Warren. “Love your enemies.” Word and World 28.1 (2008): 13.
Kirk, Alan. “‘Love Your Enemies,’ the Golden Rule, and Ancient Reciprocity (Luke 6:27-35).” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 122, no. 4, Society of Biblical Literature, 2003, pp. 667–86, https://doi.org/10.2307/3268071.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.
Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Zondervan, 2005.
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