There is no doubt that Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies. There is no room for negotiation with Jesus on this point.
Indeed, while we attempt to evade Jesus’ clear teaching by placing limitations on his command, specifically related to who we love and how much we love, these limitations cannot be accepted by those who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus with sincerity.
While loving one’s enemy is a difficult and often impossible struggle, viewing Jesus’ command as unattainable misses something that is rooted in the heart of the gospel of grace.
In our finite human existence, we believe that the strength to love others is found in ourselves and in our ability to muster up a forced love. We hear Jesus’ command and believe it to be true, but grit our teeth and force what is humanly impossible to do: love someone who we believe to be unlovable.
Such a view of Jesus’ command will certainly lead us to fail.
The ability to love others, especially our enemies, comes not from our own strength. Rather, we find the strength to love our enemies through the character and image of God that dwells in us, just as God dwelled in Jesus.
In other words, our love for others comes, not so much from our human capacity to love, but through God’s empowering grace. Our strength to love others can only be discovered in our identity in Christ, as we are transformed by his call to see others as he does.
While many acts of goodness that manifest this radical love could be discussed, it seems to me that Jesus modeled three primary actions and reactions that expressed radical love toward our friends and enemies.
First, Jesus called his followers to respond to the harm done to them with actions that are nonviolent.
When Jesus was arrested in the garden, he responded with nonviolence and called his disciples to do the same. While those who came to seize him carried swords and clubs, Jesus reacted to their aggression with peacefulness.
This does not mean that Jesus forbade the seeking of justice. Rather, he envisioned seeking God’s true justice that breaks cycles of hatred and violence – justice that is not retaliatory but measured and redemptive.
Moreover, Jesus’ command for his followers to turn the other cheek is not a command to become weak in the face of evil. Rather, through turning the cheek we express a strength that epitomizes the actions of Christ and opens the possibility for love and peace between our enemies and us.
Second, Jesus commanded love for enemies through unconditional forgiveness for the wrongs others have committed.
God’s forgiveness for humanity is not based on the human action of confession and repentance. God’s forgiveness is unconditional and extends to those who have committed the gravest sins.
Thus, if we are to reveal the character of God to others, we must extend the same kind of forgiveness that God has so graciously extended to us.
Yet, forgiveness is not simply the overlooking of a wrong that has been committed. Those who commit wrongs should be brought to justice.
However, the justice we seek is not a condition for the forgiveness we are called to offer. In fact, the justice we seek must be restorative justice – a justice that offers reconciliation and seeks to rebuild relationships.
Jesus does not command forgiveness when someone serves their penalty for a wrong committed. Rather, he calls for forgiveness apart from that penalty, believing that forgiveness opens the opportunity for healing and transformation.
Third, Jesus’ actions and words expressed love for enemies through the practice of welcoming and embracing enemies.
We can look to Jesus’ experience with Judas, the one who betrayed him, for guidance. Jesus not only shared a meal with Judas, he also washed the feet of his would-be enemy.
While Judas moved ahead with his evil intentions against Jesus, Jesus remained true to the character of God by continuing his hospitality and intimacy with Judas. Though Judas rejected Jesus, Jesus refused to reject Judas and, instead, embraced and loved his enemy.
There are those who would argue that the kind of love of which Jesus spoke and modeled is unattainable, but this argument is theologically shortsighted.
If we believe that love is the prime characteristic of God and that the love of God is powerful enough to change the world, and if we have embraced and now bear that love in our new identity in Christ, then we must believe that the love we share with others is the power through which God seeks to love and redeem all humanity – our neighbors and our enemies.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Wilderness Preacher, and is used with permission.