The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 9/16/01
Text: Matthew 5:43-48
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

LOVE your enemy? Are you kidding, Lord? These days? Possible perhaps. But not likely. In fact, we would PREFER not to. Especially when we see those TV images of the jetliners barreling into the twin towers for the thousandth time, when we see the rescue workers sifting through seven stories of rubble, when we see the tear-stained faces of the wives and children of courageous policemen and firefighters who gave their lives trying to save people they had never met. It is hard to find anything resembling love in our hearts for such barbarians as would have caused such a thing.

Our leaders are using the language of war. The president called the attack last week part of the first war of the 21st century. This week he said, "This is a war not against a specific individual, nor will it be a war against solely one organization. It is a war against terrorist activities." The banner across CNN's web page proclaims boldly AMERICA'S NEW WAR. War, war, war!

Dr. Vernon Broyles, the associate director for social justice and associate for corporate witness in the National Ministries Division of our General Assembly Council wrote this week, "We should all be grateful for the acknowledgment by President Bush that 'we are at war,' and profit from the comments of those who have described the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as 'another Pearl Harbor.'

"What is most important in those comments is not that we can now justify a massive, sustained response against 'terrorism,' but that we have the chance to understand that these acts have been viewed by the perpetrators all along, not as acts of 'terrorism,' but as acts of 'war.' We have no chance of responding successfully to our 'enemies,' whether our goal is vengeance, or elimination, or peace, unless we understand them. Osama bin Laden, and everyone of his ilk, whether they have come before him or will come after him, have always seen themselves as being engaged in 'war,' not 'terrorism'... We have seen numerous video clips that show their training camps, which we describe as training grounds for 'terrorists,' but they understand to be military installations for the preparation of soldiers in their 'war.'"(1) WAR!!!

War means we are confronted by an enemy. OK. But now we come into church less than two weeks after the heinous attack and even before we have an accurate count of the dead and injured, we are confronted by the words of Jesus: "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." NUTS! Truth is, at this moment we would rather have permission to bomb the enemy back to the Stone Age, or at least some punishment that would fit the crime, not this. LOVE your enemy? What does Jesus mean?

To begin with, note that when Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said...hate your enemies," he was not inferring that this had been their previous religious instruction. Nowhere in the Old Testament do we ever find that we are to hate our enemies. In fact, what we run into is just the opposite. For example, In Exodus 23, we read, "If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him."(2) Or Proverbs 25, "If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you."(3) The lesson of the Old Testament is clear and consistent, and nowhere is there any teaching about hating your enemy.

However, we should also note that, just because there is no such instruction in scripture, that is no guarantee that good religious people will not behave that way. There have always been some folks, both in Jesus' time and in our own, who seem to think that it is almost a sacred duty to hate anyone who is not "one of us." The Essenes of the Qumran community, the people who preserved the Dead Sea scrolls, were like that. They believed that they were to "love all the children of light and hate all the children of darkness."(4) Whether Jesus was thinking of them when he brought this subject up we have no way of knowing, but the point is that people (religious or not) DO think and act in terms of hatred for their enemies, and Jesus says, "This ought not to be."

All right, we can go along with that. Do not hate the Afghanis or the guy down the street who kicked your dog or the teenager in the back of your house who is driving you nuts or any other enemy. Good advice. After all, everyone knows that hating anyone does more harm to the one DOING the hating than the one who is the OBJECT of that hate. It would be fine if that is what Jesus said...but, of course, it is not. He did not say, "Do not hate your enemy;" he said "Love your enemy," and there is a world of difference there.

What could Jesus possibly have meant? Not romantic love, of course, but agapé love - the kind of caring and concern we would have for someone whose welfare was really important to us; it means an UNCONQUERABLE BENEVOLENCE, an UNFAILING GOODWILL that will exist no matter what, even in the midst of conflict.

How far should we take this "unconquerable benevolence?" Does this mean that we are to condone evil? Does loving our enemies mean that we can never confront them about what made us enemies in the first place? Does this mean that we are to be pacifists in the face of September 11th's horrible aggression? Of course not. We are certainly NOT very loving, we are NOT looking out for someone's highest and best good, if we let them get away with anything they please, if we do not set limits.

If you have ever driven along a newly resurfaced road before the center lines have been painted on it, you understand. Your tendency is to drive right down the middle rather than down the right hand side as would be normal once the lines are drawn. You drive MORE COMFORTABLY once the limits are laid out. Parents who really love their kids will let them know what the limits are because the youngsters will live more comfortably once they are firmly established. In terms of our enemies or potential enemies, they too will end up in a better relationship with us once they understand just what the limits are. Love, even for enemies, will define the limits.

All right, we are to love our enemies. Our love is not the kind that will just allow anything to go on, but will seek the highest and best for them. But you must admit, that is a TALL ORDER. How are we to go about it? Jesus gives a hint: PRAY for them. That's right, PRAY FOR THEM. To be sure, that is NOT our natural inclination. If there is someone we REALLY dislike, someone we really HATE, we surely are not going to pray for them. As a matter of fact, if their name ever comes up in our prayers, it is generally in terms of some kind of violent death, or at least painful injury. But Jesus does not say "pray ABOUT them," he says "Pray FOR them." And you know something? It works. You just cannot hate someone for whom you are praying. Try it. You will see.

Why? Jesus tells us in the next few verses. "That you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." THAT is why Jesus wants us to concern ourselves about this; he wants us to be God-like.

How does God treat enemies? Pretty strangely according to the way most of us would think. We know very well that there are people in this world who scoff at God and God's commands; they have no compunction about the most heinous sin; they would never consider darkening the door of a church. But what happens to them? Not much that we can see. We think of some arch-criminals and they seem to get along OK (MORE than OK)...big cars, fine homes, lots of money... and we wonder why. We think it is not fair. But apparently God does not worry much about transitory things. God's blessings are available to all alike, at least in THIS life. To be sure, there WILL come a day of judgment. But that is not our worry. What Jesus is telling us is that, as far as this world is concerned, our treatment of other people (even enemies) is to be based on seeking the highest and best for them...agapé exactly the way God does.

The Lord makes another point here. If we do NOT act that way, what makes us any different from anyone else? If you only love the people who love you back, big deal. Jesus says that even the dregs of society are willing to respond with love for love; God's people need to be ready with more than that, even to the extent of responding with love for hate. If we cannot manage more than love for love, what makes us different from the lowest of the low? Nothing at all...nothing at all!

Then there is the question of being civil. He says if the only people to whom we are willing to say Hello, if the only ones to whom we are willing to extend the niceties of life, are those in our own crowd, how are we any different from even the pagans? The message is that God's people are to reach beyond just those of their own crowd, and even to those whom they might think of as enemies, in extending the common courtesies. We cannot be content to act like everyone else in the world, even in the matter of who gets a greeting from us and who does not. God's people are to be different.

How different? Listen to what Jesus says: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." PERFECT? That is different, all right. Not "blameless" perfect, but perfect in the way we would understand the phrase "a perfect stranger" or "perfectly wonderful" or "perfectly awful" (depending on your point of view). Jesus is saying simply this: when we have come to the place in managing human relationships that we are able to deal with our enemies in a caring and compassionate manner - the Osama bin Ladens, the miserable neighbors, the ungrateful children, even the one who promised to love, honor and cherish us but seems to have forgotten about that now - when we can deal with them with a heart of love, THEN we will have reached the stage that the Lord would call a kind of DIVINE MATURITY. We will be truly God-like with one another. THAT is what Jesus means when he talks about being PERFECT.

So we return to the question with which we began: Love your enemy? Are you kidding, Lord? No, but admittedly it is no easy task. Many are tempted to give in to violence and have done some truly horrible things in the aftermath of last week's attacks. We see pictures of holy places of Muslim Americans violated. We see the wounds of a Sikh grandfather, assaulted because his skin was dark and someone objected to his headwear. We hear the story of the elementary school child who is harassed because his ancestors came from India, and his sister telling us she does not understand, for she, too, is angry at those who have hurt us, those who call us the Great Satan. At such a time it is good to remember that the original American Dream was not a spouse, 2.5 children, a house, two cars and a dog. The original dream that brought pilgrims to these shores was for a land where we would be able to worship God as each might see fit without fear. The Puritans at first - and now the Sikhs and the Muslims too.

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." I was intrigued at something that was posted on the internet the other day by someone who identified himself as simply "Jonny."(5) He wrote:
For some time now I have been considering what would be the best response to WTC attack and now, having just read that Afghanistan is in the grip of a 3-year famine and the UN estimates 5.5 million Afghans will soon be starving, the answer has suddenly become obvious.

America should send aid to Afghanistan on a scale not seen since the Marshall plan. Against the will of the Taliban, America should feed the starving, pour food and materials into the country. Can you imagine it? The response to the outrage is not an act of revenge but an act of mercy. At a stroke, the entire, predictable cycle of response/outrage/response/outrage would be smothered at birth. It is so bizarre, so unexpected, and yet it would be so very effective.

Think about it...What sweet revenge it would be to see the people scrambling for American food in the dust created by their Taliban masters! What subtle revenge to see in the eyes of those peasants, not the easy hatred inspired by war but the uneasy question: "Can it really be Satan that feeds the starving?" We could smile to hear the Taliban, Iran, et. al. try to summon contempt for this ludicrously unjustified act of Love. We could out-righteous the masters of righteousness and smile benignly as their followers deserted them so they could feed their children. This IS a religious war after all, so let us fight them with the weapons we have: If ever the Christian message...had strategic relevance, it is now.
LOVE your enemy? Are you kidding, Lord? No. Jesus says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." As William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, said, "The only way a Christian has of getting rid of his enemies is to love them into being his friends." That may seem preposterous, ill-timed and unrealistic right now. But, you know, it just might work. And on top of that, this IS the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!


1. Vernon Broyles, "'War,' 'Terrorism' and the Search for Peace," Presbyterian News Service, 9/18/01

2. Exodus 23:4

3. Proverbs 25:21-22

4. M Eugene Boring, "The Gospel of Matthew," New Interpreter's Bible, Electronic Edition, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000)

5. Posted on news://

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