But you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus 19:18
Love your enemies. Matthew 5:44
Where are we aiming at in this Love Your Neighbor campaign? What outcome are we hoping for? What does the touchdown look like? I have no idea. Nor should I. We are not saying, “Here’s how we’re all going to love our neighbors. Next Saturday we’ll meet here at church to pick up trash in the neighborhood from noon to three.” If we did that, it would doom this campaign to zero impact. We would pick up trash. We would feel good about ourselves. Our neighborhood might or might not notice. And at 3:00 we would all return to our well-established patterns of everyday neighbor-neglect. Instead, what we are saying is, “Go figure out for yourself what it means for you to love your neighbor. God will lead you to love people as never before, and your love will make Jesus non-ignorable – both to them and to you.”
Last Sunday we saw that the Good Samaritan didn’t take a missions trip to some far-away place. He was just going down the road when he saw a man who needed help, and all he did was not ignore the obvious. That is why Jesus made that Samaritan outcast the definition for all time of what it means to love your neighbor. We don’t need to travel anywhere to obey the second most important commandment in all the Bible. All we need to do is notice the people already around us, and not look the other way, but help them. The priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side probably had some religious responsibilities to fulfill, giving them a perfect excuse for doing nothing. If our lives are so crowded with good Christian things that we don’t have time or margin or emotion for love, then the time has come to repent of our kind of Christianity and rediscover the real Jesus.
We wonder, “Who is my neighbor?” And the Lord’s answer is, Whoever needs your help, your mercy, your advocacy. Now today, with these words in verse 44, “Love your enemies,” the Lord is making it even easier for us to spot our neighbors. If you were to ask me, “Ray, who is your neighbor?” I’d have to stop and think about it. But if you asked me, “Ray, who is your enemy?” certain people would come to mind immediately. Maybe for you too. Today in Matthew 5 the Lord is saying to us, “Your enemy is your neighbor too.”
Is that hard for you? It’s hard for me. The biggest barrier between where I am and where I could be in loving my neighbor is not the inertia of my daily routine, my default settings that block out the inconvenience and interruptions of love. I want to love kind people and injured people. But I don’t want to love my enemies. It gets worse. I don’t want to love your enemies. I know enough of how some of you have been mistreated that I don’t want your enemies to be forgiven; I want your enemies to get their comeuppance. So here is how I come to this today. My own heart is aligned to love my friends and to love people who’ve been wronged and harmed by the powerful and the arrogant. But then I hear the voice of Jesus: “But I say to you, Love your enemies.” Here is why I want to embrace that and not accept my own limitations. Love for enemies happens to be my own salvation. The Bible says, “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). That takes us to the heart of the gospel. That is what I’m banking on with God for myself. How then can I reject it for others? So what we’re talking about today isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy for God. But at the very heart of Christianity there stands a cross. And now our reconciling God is drawing us into his reconciling ways. The Bible says, “God gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). It does not say, “God gives us moments of reconciliation now and then, when we feel like it, with the people we prefer.” “God gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” In other words, for Christians, reconciliation is all we do. Reconciliation is how we roll. Reconciliation is our ministry from God. We have no right to do anything else. I believe that revival in Nashville will be marked primarily not by evangelism but by reconciliation between Christians, and then the evangelistic overflow. How the Lord will be honored by Christians confessing sins and forgiving sins and coming together as never before! Let’s go there, no matter how hard it might seem now. The Lord is waiting for us there. He is already present in that moment when so much will be on the line and we will need him. He is there. He will not fail us. He will put his glory upon us.
It is hard to apologize and say we’re sorry when we’ve done wrong. It is far harder to receive an apology and truly forgive when we’ve been wronged. Not being allowed to binge on crazy sexual chaos, not being allowed to lie and cheat and claw our way to the top – when Jesus tells us not to do those obviously horrible things, we welcome it. We don’t want those things. But an unforgiving heart toward a real enemy who has harmed us – that doesn’t feel obviously horrible. An unforgiving heart can feel virtuous. Not being allowed to bear a grudge, not being allowed to gloat over my enemies’ hardships and setbacks – when Jesus tells us not to do those things but to love our enemies, how do we do that? Our enemies are our neighbors, and maybe the neighbors who live closest to us in that interior world of our thoughts and feelings. All we bring to the table, as we come to the Lord today, is a willingness – we don’t have to be good at this – all we bring is a simple willingness to follow Jesus into new places of love and obedience, because he will be there to help us. And if we’re unwilling but willing to be made willing, he can work with that too.
Last Sunday the Lord answered our excuses for not loving our neighbor. Today he wants to heal our refusals to love our neighbor, when our neighbor has made himself our enemy. We’re not talking today about when someone hurt our feelings. When our feelings get hurt, it might be our own fault. We might be too touchy. There is a difference between being hurt and being harmed. What we’re talking today is loving as our neighbors people who have harmed us. That’s the kind of person Jesus has in mind when he talks about our enemies. And that is our biggest problem with loving our neighbor. Busyness is a problem. Self-absorption is a problem. Feeling an unnecessary pressure for “results” – whatever that means – that’s a problem. Laziness is a problem. But all of these are the merest fleabites compared to an unforgiving heart.
What if we dared to take steps of reconciliation toward our enemies? They might refuse us. The Bible says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Our enemies might turn away. But have we tried? What might God do for us, if we did try? What new glorious realities in our city might break loose? What might God do with a community from whom nothing but reconciliation flows out? The Bible says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19). The wrath of God is all the wrath this world needs. What would it be like for nothing but love to flow out from us? There’s nothing like forgiving love to make the real Jesus non-ignorable. People expect us to love our friends who love us. They do not expect us to love our enemies who harm us. People expect us to meet power with power. They do not expect us to meet power with mercy. But that’s how Jesus loved at the cross. He said from the cross, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). Maybe you’ve wondered, I’m so small, our city is so big, how can I make that Jesus non-ignorable? Here’s how – go to the cross, where he died for you, and never leave. So let’s listen to the Lord now with honest openness to whatever he wants to say to each of us this morning.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Matthew 5:43
So you see the quotation of Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor.” But the Old Testament never said, “And you shall hate your enemy.” In fact, the Old Testament said, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (Proverbs 25:21-22). So where did these added words come from, “. . . and hate your enemy”? Human tradition. And the human tradition neutralized the divine command. We didn’t deny God’s command. We just added in our own, which did deny God’s command. We read Leviticus 19:18 and thought, “I’m cool with loving my friends. But no way can God expect me to love my enemies.” So we blunted the force of God’s beautiful command by inserting our own limitation: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” How different is God’s way of thinking! “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). Look how God thinks:
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? Matthew 5:44-47
God lovingly blesses both evil people and good people. God lovingly blesses the people we wish he would punish. Every beautiful sunrise over the home of an abortionist is the love of God saying, “I want to brighten your day, to get you to stop ignoring me.” Every rain shower that waters the lawn of an adult bookstore owner is the love of God saying, “I want to make your life better, to win your heart.” So, who do you disapprove of? Who do you resent? Whoever that person is, God loves that person, and he shows it every day, rain or shine. In fact, Jesus says it’s “his sun” that shines down (verse 45). It’s very personal with God. And where our English Bibles say that God “sends rain,” the Greek text literally says, “He rains” on the just and on the unjust. It could not be more personal for God. He is personally sending out his love to all kinds of people as living proof to them that his love reaches even to them. They don’t believe that. Or, if they do believe in God’s love, they think they deserve it. But God still loves them. And what Jesus is saying is this. If we will follow him on this path of love for people who don’t always say thank you, then we will be the children of our Father who is in heaven (verse 45). Then we will bear the family resemblance. People will see him in us, and they might just join us in believing the gospel. But if we refuse and dig in, if we resist God’s radical love, then we might as well be unbelievers (46-47). Limited love is not Christian. Only unlimited love is Christian.
The Lord is not saying you have to trust your enemy, you have to hang out with your enemy, you have to enjoy your enemy, you have to pretend that what they did to you wasn’t evil. What then does love for our enemies do? Two things. First, verse 44: “Pray for those who persecute you.” Pray for their blessing in Christ. Second, verse 47: “If you greet only your brothers . . . .” Greet your enemy, and don’t snub your enemy. In other words, keep the door open to your enemy, because he or she might go into repentance and have a real change of heart and return to you for reconciliation. Pray for your enemy, and keep the door of your heart open to reconciliation, even as you might be wise to keep your distance. The most important thing is what’s going on in our hearts.
If we’re going to follow Jesus, here is one thing we can be sure of. We will not live “a normal life,” without injuries and losses. That is not the story God is going to tell through us. What can we expect, as we follow Jesus? Sooner or later, something catastrophic, something unjust and destructive and costly, will crash into our lives. And then we will finally discover why we’re here. God has sent us into this world on a mission of forgiveness. God himself went on that mission ahead of us, all the way to the cross and the resurrection, to prove that his forgiveness creates the beauty that will matter forever. Following Jesus basically comes down to this: a crucifixion, a resurrection, and life everlasting.
That is why God allows us to suffer. He understands that at the very center of love is suffering. He understands that love is a crucifixion. God knows it very well, and he is taking us there, because that’s where his glory shines. That is why God will not give us our ideal life scenarios. He will not give us the designer lives we dreamed of. God has a better plan. God wants to draw us into the power of his love. So let’s be grateful – maybe scared, but still grateful – because, as the Bible says, “If I have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). If we as a church have good theology and cool music and a positive vibe – if we have many strengths, but have not love, we are not less, we are nothing.
God is rescuing every one of us from turning our lives into a resentful, brooding nothing, curving back in on itself in self-pity. God is drawing us out into the greatest power in the universe – his forgiving love. Jesus called us to take up our cross daily and follow him (Luke 9:23). That’s a call into his beauty and his power – the only things in this world worth having. So he allows us to suffer. God wants to show our enemies, through us, something of the love of God as we don’t retaliate but pray for their forgiveness. Do not think that the wrong you suffered ended your life. The wrong you suffered deepened your life. It drew you closer to Jesus the Crucified. Now, through you, his love can get closer to someone else – so close they might even believe it.
So here is the question the Lord wants to ask us this morning. Verse 47: “What more are you doing than others?” What are we doing that goes beyond liking the people who already like us? Jesus is taking us all beyond the limits of understandable love into the unlimits of reconciling love. “What more are we doing than others?” Here’s how far he will take us:
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48
This is the kind of verse that gets us looking up other translations, because surely the word “perfect” cannot mean “perfect” – just like “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” cannot include enemies. But the Lord’s point doesn’t rest on one word. His point rests on the entire phrase, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Look back at verse 20: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The righteousness of the Pharisees is the opposite of the perfection of the Father. The righteousness of the Pharisees is the minimalist “Just tell me the least I have to do to get by, and I’ll do it, and I’ll call it Christianity.” But here is what our Lord is saying in verse 48: “There will be no limit to your mercy, as there is no limit to your Father’s mercy.”
Your enemy is also your neighbor. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Here’s what it can look like. Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian whose family rescued Jews during World War 2. They were betrayed and arrested. Corrie and her sister Betsy were sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Betsy died there, which broke Corrie’s heart. But Corrie’s life was spared because of a clerical error. Several years after the war, she was speaking on the subject of forgiveness at a Christian meeting. After the meeting, one of her former prison guards, one of the worst, appeared out of the crowd and approached her. He had become a Christian. And suddenly there he was, with his hand outstretched, asking her, “Will you forgive me?” The sufferings he had inflicted were real. Corrie’s anguish was not her own hyper-sensitivity. The wrong was monstrous. Here losses could never be recovered in all this life. The wrongs were of life-altering magnitude. And now that man is standing there and asking her, “Will you forgive me?” Later Corrie wrote:
I stood there with coldness clutching my heart . . . . I prayed, “Jesus, help me!” Woodenly, mechanically I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me, and I experienced an incredible thing. The current started in my shoulder, raced down into my arms and sprang into our clutched hands. Then this warm reconciliation seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother,” I cried with my whole heart. For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard, the former prisoner. I have never known the love of God so intensely as I did in that moment.