Things I love: my wife, good coffee, my three children, sunsets and sports. I love my parents, water-skiing, Queens, N.Y., body surfing, my brother and sister, and barbecue. I love funny movies, popcorn, life-long friends and new friends, “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, and pancakes!
I love a lot of things and people, and experiencing them has filled my life with pleasure. But loving them does not set me apart as a follower of Jesus Christ. Loving those things makes me just like other men who love their wives, their families, their friends, and their preferences.
Jesus Christ said this is incomplete loving. Teaching his disciples and the growing crowds, Jesus said a lot of shocking things, rocking the normal sensitivity of humanity to the core. But nothing he said jars the perspective of life in this world more than Matthew 5:43-45: “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, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
“But I say to you:” — This phrase was an unmistakable claim to the authority only God possessed. Jesus could not simultaneously claim to love the word of God, and then claim to speak for God as he did, unless he in fact was God. So Jesus repeated himself with shocking boldness six times in chapter five, “You have heard … but I say.”
Here, Jesus confronts his disciples, and us, with our immature understanding of love. And Jesus cuts right to the heart with a very sharp tongue. You love those who return your love? Great! Tax-collectors do that! In other words, if this is the measure of your love, even people who cheat to get ahead love that way. Again, you greet only your brothers? Super job! Sounds like the Gentiles. In other words, even people who do not know God love their family and friends.
One of the most beautiful things to realize for any believer is the right we have to be called children of God. Hear 1 John 3:1, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” Beautiful! Put that in decorative calligraphy and frame it on my wall.
But Jesus goes to the responsibility that comes along with the rights. Jesus is not giving us titles, he is changing the way we love the meanest and most destructive people we encounter — our enemies and our persecutors. And he does so in the form of two commands: “You must love your enemies.” And, “You must pray for your persecutors.”
That love is the evidence that we are children of the heavenly Father. That is a hard way to love.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer was confronted with the difficulty of living this command in the crucible of resisting the Nazi regime of Hitler. He said, “This commandment, that we should love our enemies and forgo revenge, will grow even more urgent in the holy struggle which lies before us … the Christians will be hounded from place to place, subjected to maltreatment and death of every kind … soon the time will come when we shall pray … and it will be a prayer of earnest love for these very sons of perdition who stand around and gaze at us with eyes aflame with hatred, and who have perhaps already raised their hands to kill us … .”
Bonhoeffer lived these words to his last breath, death by hanging near the end of World War II. Jesus lived these words to his dying breath, repeatedly praying as he died on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Do we really want to be sons of our Father who is in heaven? Then we need to learn to love like that.