How do we ‘love our enemy’?

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.   

Matthew 5:44 & 45

Dear members and friends, 

Among all of Jesus’s teachings, this might be the hardest: love your enemy. I have noticed that this teaching has been used out of context or even abused. As far as I understand, it means neither to pardon all wrong doings of an evil person nor to force ourselves to have friendly feelings toward those who are actively hurting us. The Bible is very clear about one’s own choices and unavoidable consequences caused by those choices, meaning for each action there is a consequential result. Like all of Jesus’s teachings, this concept has layers of meaning that are universally relevant to those who were listening at the time of Jesus as well as to those who are living in the 21st century. I would like to share three aspects of the meaning that seem important to me.

The first is the context. Jesus did not deliver this message suddenly without any context, but he began with this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Here, Jesus intentionally uses the words “heard” and “it” to indicate the ambiguous origin of such a saying. He is pointing out that although it may be a common belief shared by the people, it is not from God. In the entire Bible, there is no place where God teaches people to hate other people or that it is right to kill others. In the Ten Commandments, “Thou shall not murder” is included without any additional words or exceptions.

The second is the definition of the word “enemy.” Often, people seem to believe that they know the exact definition of the words that they are using. The truth is that each word we use is defined by our own mind depending on when and where it is used. Of course, the level of education might make a huge difference in the usage of words, but the essential fact is that words are expressions of our own thoughts. Thus, at times people use words based on their own feelings and what they desire to express. Consequently, defining the word “enemy” could be a complex task depending on who is saying it and in what context.  

Let us look at its definition linguistically, which could give us a somewhat objective, and yet collective view. The English word “enemy” originates from a Latin word inimicus, which is a combined word of in (not) and amicus (friend), meaning one who is not a friend. In the ancient Roman world, someone who was not a friend was perhaps considered an enemy. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word “enemy” originates from a word that has a meaning related to “hostile.” In the biblical context, to be hostile means to have hatred against. And, to have hatred means not being able to stand together, or the two cannot live within the same house or the same community. The English word “hostile,” which is defined as unfriendly or antagonistic, originates from a Latin word hostis, meaning stranger or enemy. If I may combine all these together, by “enemy” Jesus might be pointing out the two types of people to whom we might show hostility or at least unfriendliness: those who are strangers to us and those who disagree or oppose us.  

Finally, the third context of the teaching is the meaning of the word “love” that Jesus uses, which is agape in Greek. Agape as love exists above all personal affections and feelings, meaning we need to transcend what is personally meaningful and important to embody agape. Thus, “agape your enemy” has two meanings. One is to overcome the hard feelings, anger, or hatred against those who harmed us and show them mercy and kindness. The other meaning is to essentially transcend those human feelings and find where God’s love is reaching into our hearts. “Agape your enemy” means essentially not having those negative and destructive feelings within one’s heart against any human, because they are not compatible with the presence of Divine. That is why Jesus emphasizes that loving your enemy results in one becoming “a child of God in heaven.” 

My brothers and sisters in God, let us take a moment today and reflect upon this teaching of Jesus: love your enemy. Let us reflect and search our own mind and see if there is any anger, hatred, or negative emotions against our family, friends, neighbors, or other human beings. Then, let us pray that with the blessings of God we might transcend them all.

Blessings, Rev. Junchol Lee