Did Jesus really love his own enemies?

So I’ve been on this kick of late that testifies to my own Christian faith by using social role theory. When we think about such roles, we tend toward our occupational and familial roles. Our roles evolve and can even improve over time. Sons and brothers may become husbands and dads. Even the friend roles we play evolve in the course of time. If nothing else, people die and we’re faced with grief over the death of a role as well as that of a loved one. And taking on new roles is not as easy as it may sound. But it typically happens to all of us. We play roles.

Social roles help us figure out our rights and responsibilities in life, and to keep these in some reasonable balance for the sake of our own psyches.

When we read of sociologists researching the effect of, say, marriage roles on overall happiness, we learn for example that wives who feel an imbalance on the side of responsibilities at home will feel more unhappy. Husbands who feel they have more rights than responsibilities at home are notoriously happy per most studies.

Lest I go on with this and stir family arguments of any sort, I want to stress that I think of Christianity as a social role within the larger human society. A Christian has rights and responsibilities. People who stay Christian, like those who stay married, have some sense of balance. Yet, there are those Christians who happily claim an abundance of rights and struggle to understand those Christians who feel over-burdened with social responsibility. The latter are as apt to leave the Church behind as over-burdened wives are to leave a marriage behind.

To be sure, we all do have role models for good or ill. People who teach us how to stay married are important in society. Usually it turns out to be those well-balanced at home in areas of rights vs. responsibilities. Comparing marriages, though, to Christian Churches, poor role models tend to really mess things up big time. We learn to grow our marriages and churches both from the presence of a positive, not negative, role model. From someone who is well-balanced in areas of both rights and responsibilities. Growing Christianity, like growing a family, requires being able to learn the role of Christian from someone who is well-balanced in both of these key areas of social role behavior. Could that be, oh, let’s say Jesus Christ?

Let me just tick off a few rights and responsibilities that I’ve noticed Jesus emphasizing for those of us who would choose the role of Christian for ourselves.

• We have the right to an abundant life
• We have the right to be lovingly pursued
• We have the right to be forgiven and given a new lease on life
• We have the right to resurrection after death
• We have the right to exercise our own free will and make our own decisions
• We have the right to fellowship or friendship
• We have the right to be reconciled with our wholly other God

And now for some responsibilities that correspond to these rights as Christians based on the role model or example of Jesus Christ himself.

• We have the responsibility for giving whatever abundance we receive
• We have the responsibility for lovingly pursuing others
• We have the responsibility to forgive others and grant second chances
• We have the responsibility to die to our selfish desires
• We have the responsibility to grant freedom to others in making their own decisions
• We have the responsibility to befriend others who are in need of fellowship
• We have the responsibility to reconcile ourselves with others, and to love even our enemies

This last responsibility is far from being least if we are to follow Jesus as our role model and example. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus frequently interacting with his enemies in ways that exercised both his own rights and responsibilities.

Who were the enemies that Jesus loved and went out of his way to reconcile with? They were the liberals and conservatives among his own Jewish people: the Sadducees on the left and Pharisees on the right. Both sought, in their own respective ways, to prove to Jesus that they were right and he was wrong. Both read their Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in ways that proved to them Jesus could not possibly be the Christ.

So how did Jesus model for us the way we, too, should love our enemies?

The Gospels of our New Testament suggest three ways in particular for loving one’s enemies based on how Jesus behaved in relation to his own.

1. Jesus attempted to reconcile with those who had something against him prior to offering himself sacrificially. You may recall how Jesus having these words to say in his Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Just because Jesus didn’t achieve peaceful reconciliation with the Pharisees and Sadducees who were his constant enemies did not mean he did not try. He made no attempts to avoid them or to avoid his conflicts with them. He lovingly engaged them at every opportunity prior to his own death on the cross.

2. Jesus actively listened to and questioned his enemies. He didn’t talk to his enemies before he first listened to them. He assertively asked questions seeking to understand what they were really saying and meaning. A typical example of Jesus loving his enemies by asking questions comes from Matthew 22. Keeping in mind that his enemies were the religious leaders of his time, the conservative Pharisees who opposed paying taxes to the government showed him an official Roman coin called the denarius ”and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’” (Matthew 22:20). If you don’t recall the rest of that story, look up the remainder of it now yourself.

Jesus was then confronted by his liberal enemies, the Sadducees, who were opposed to any belief in life after death. They concocted their own little parable of the wife who died after having married seven infertile brothers in obedience to the laws of Moses. Now in heaven, these skeptics wondered, whose wife will she be? To which Jesus replied, “But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you?” (Matthew 22:31).

Just because his enemies failed to understand Jesus did not mean he did not seek to understand them by asking them questions. Jesus routinely listened prior to talking.

3. Jesus loved his enemies by trying to help them rather than trying to please them. If you have experience loving your own children, you will know what I mean here. Sometimes the very things we do trying to help others will displease them most. Yet, we do so anyhow out of love. Again using Matthew’s Gospel as an example, in chapter 21 we read the familiar story of Jesus turning over the money-changers’ tables in the Temple courtyard. “Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it ‘a den of robbers’” (Matthew 21:12-13). Doubtless, this did not please his enemies. However, what Jesus was urgently trying to do was help them learn the lesson of Jeremiah 7, where God declared through the prophet that the religious leaders of Judah, prior to the destruction of their Temple, had turned it into a “den of robbers” (Jeremiah 7:11). Jesus was trying to help his enemies avoid the destruction of their Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D.

Just because his enemies failed to accept the help Jesus was seeking to provide them did not mean he was not lovingly trying to help them examine their choices in time to prevent their horrible consequences to come.

How well do we confront rather than avoid conflict with our enemies as followers of Jesus? How well do we listen to and question our enemies in order to understand what they truly mean? How well do we try to help our enemies even when we know they’ll not be pleased by our efforts? In other words, how well do we follow Jesus as our role model for being a Christian who loves our enemies as Jesus loved his own? These are questions each one of us may do well to answer for ourselves if we would dare assume the role of “Christian” in today’s world.

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