How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Should we still love our enemies?

Read time: 4 minutes

Chris asks a straightforward and pertinent question in response to my general argument that a narrative-historical hermeneutic, which necessarily brings into the foreground of our reading the contextual factors that restrict the New Testament’s frame of reference, may still be formative for the belief and practice of the church today:

I am part of the Mennonite movement and you know we stress the Sermon on the Mount and the command to love our enemies. Are we reading Jesus out of context to say we should be doing that today? How would we know?

The first point I would make is that if we thought historically, we would probably know instinctively how to deal with this issue. We do not for the most part, as evangelicals, think historically, we think theologically. We do not think prophetically, we think rationally. So we have to resolve the problem in a rather cumbersome intentional manner. One day things may be different….

My main concern is that we should grasp the story that is being told, as it is told, because I think that we have been led to misrepresent who Jesus was, what Israel’s God was up to, what the church was, etc., out of a concern to promote theological and ethical traditions that actually developed, perhaps for very good reasons, under later conditions. Every time we treat these texts uncritically, unthinkingly, as timeless injunctions—for example, “love your enemies”—we let the story slip away from us, it slips back beneath the surface like a drowning man.

In this particular case I think it is misleading to read the Sermon on the Mount as a body of general Christian teaching. It is a thoroughly Jewish text with a strong eschatological orientation. The Beatitudes, with which it opens, define an eschatological community, a community of renewed Israel. The parable of the two houses, with which it closes, like Ezekiel’s parable of the wall (Ezek. 13:8-16), speaks not of an existential dilemma faced by the whole of humanity but of coming judgment on Jerusalem and the survival of that community which trusts in Jesus’ words.

But does this mean that we are not also taught to love our enemies? Today? Let me suggest one way in which that question might be constructively addressed.

The command to love enemies presumably has in view the Roman occupying force, beloved of the tax collectors (Matt. 5:44-46). Jesus alludes to Leviticus 19:17 which enjoins love for fellow Jews:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

There is no mention of hating the enemies of Israel here, and elsewhere it is always the enemies which hate Israel (cf. Lk. 1:71). So presumably Jesus is quoting a popular saying: love the Jews, hate the Romans.

The reason that Jesus gives is that by loving their Gentile enemies they will be “sons of your Father who is in heaven”, and “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:45, 48). How does this work? Because their God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”. In other words, their God is impartial or in some way transcends the distinction between Jew and Gentile.

This is very much like Paul’s argument in Romans. God is not of the Jews only but also of the Gentiles, and this needs to be reflected in, embodied in, the make up and character of the people of God (eg. Rom. 3:27-30). The inclusion of Gentiles is a sign, on the one hand, that God now judges self-righteous, exclusivist ethnic Israel and, on the other, that he will sooner or later annex the Greek-Roman world for himself.

So one line of argument would be that Jesus urges Jews to love their enemies in order to bear witness to the transcendent impartiality of YHWH, in order to demonstrate to the world that their God is not trapped in the ethnic-religious conflict between Jews and Gentiles.

So the question we would need to ask now is a similarly prophetic one, perhaps something like: How do we need to behave in order to demonstrate to the world who God is or that he is not trapped in some cultural or intellectual box of our devising? For example, given the amount of hatred that exists between Christians, it would make sense to call believers to love those across the various sectarian divides as a way of concretely and prophetically demonstrating that our God is bigger than our pettiness might otherwise lead people to believe. Or we might argue that by loving Muslims we demonstrate in the most powerful way possible that our God is God of the whole earth and not of Christians only.

But there may actually be more pressing misconceptions to straighten out. For example, we perhaps need to find concrete, practical ways—which will no doubt be painful and controversial ways—of demonstrating prophetically that our God is not mammon. You have heard it said, “Progress and prosperity are inalienable rights,” but I say to you….

How to love enemies and who is enemy are detailed in the Psalms. Your historical reading is right on target. You almost give me words for saying why the Psalms are so important for the formation of individual and community in the image of the Anointed. I remember being so confused by doctrine. Doctrine by itself is as bad as law by itself. There is no Torah by itself. Teaching always comes with a Teacher in specific concrete acts of presence and correction. It’s about awakening, to use both a Psalms and an Ephesians metaphor.

Mark Nieweg | Fri, 06/22/2012 - 11:24 | Permalink

Hello Andrew,

Your historical take on Jesus’ teaching in the Jewish/Roman context is exactly where your approach has been taking me as I am re-evaluating my own move twenty-five years ago from the American Conservative Evangelical scene to Anabaptism. I was challenged along theological lines then, to which I still see some validity. But I also saw the working out of this conviction in my new community along the lines of “conscientious objection” towards the United States military. This I found problematic in that the grounds I was laying was rather obedience to Jesus’ calling of his new community to reflect what God had done for us (his enemies) through him. We represent him to this world’s kingdoms (any geo-political nation state where authority resides) as a challenge to their inevitable defining themselves along the lines of narrow parochialism — which the United States is full of itself over these days. And of course, a nation’s vehicle of its significance and security lay in its military. Today, with the direction the United States foreign policy is taking, and the way people who sit outside process this (especially Muslims in this context), I see my Anabaptism much the same way it saw itself towards its context -prophetically — but with a different referent: American exceptionalism. So, I don’t so much hold my conviction due to qualms of conscience. After all, Paul talks about conscience much differently than faith: 1Corinthians 4:4 and  Romans 14:23 (I know; even these have contextual historical referents!).

The sad part in all this is that many of the most vocal American Conservative Christians have already bought a fantasy of this nation’s founding that exacerbates the problems of discernment and faithfulness to Jesus. They fail to be truth tellers. Whether if falls along the lines of what has been called “Constantinian sacralism,” especially in how Reformed people process the Kingdom of God, or how Dispensationalists do no evaluation whatsoever (relegating it wholly to a later time), it still requires the prophetic voice that I believe my “contextual Anabaptism” provides. And I’ve experienced similar results (of course much short of being burned at the stake!). I’ve been told my take on discipleship is not welcome. Oh, but how it has allowed me to interact with the international community residing in the United States! Once they see I am not the typical American, the evident fear in their eyes disappears. So the problem becomes, if I want to be a credible witness to Jesus, I find I have to distance myself from the American Conservative kinds of Christians.


Thanks, Mark. My simplistic view of the matter is that Anabaptism has provided a necessary and powerful critique of Christendom from within, but precisely for that reason it struggles to take us beyond Christendom. It is co-dependent, you might say, on the dysfunctionality of the paradigm. My argument is that we need to forge a fundamentally new self-understanding out of the New Testament as it is reconceived historically and as a critique of the Christendom paradigm.

Yes Andrew. Your observations and critique are well put. I think Anabaptism does struggle in certain quarters to come to terms with a new situation. It seems we all do. However, since many around me seem to think that the church cannot function or is hampered in its mission without controlling things with “power as usual,” Anabaptism serves as an example of patient endurance and suffering that had certainly captured my attention and affections. To respond as many did to their enemies is remarkable. I can only hope to do the same when my time comes :-)

Joseph Miller | Sat, 06/23/2012 - 05:37 | Permalink

I think this touches on a very key issue that may have implications for how a rigorously historical approach to Jesus and the NT affects how we construct a vision of engagement with the world and her people. 

How do we allow ourselves to grasp the significance of Jesus words for his own time without uprooting them from first century Palestine, so that we might arrive at a transparent understanding of the time and story, irrespective of ourselves and our concerns?  How do we also not retreat from engaging with the sheer might of his person and the powerful drama that so interrupted his world then and continues to interrupt our world now in dynamic ways?  

We have to be responsible with all analysis of historical figures and be sure not to impose anachronistic ideals or assumptions—or criticisms, for that matter—onto their peculiar time and situation.  But we can still learn from the men and women of history, even if our respective situations differ in radical ways.   We are able to see Jesus, in particular, through the lens of historical narrative, which allows us at least for a moment to not immediately theologize every aspect of his interactions with people in the Gospel accounts and thereby end up ignoring the very localized application and effect of his ministry.  Yet, on the other hand, we are left almost dry with a purely narrative-historical approach and are confronted with the need to find bigger answers and a deeper satisfaction on a larger, perhaps metaphysical scale that is relevant for us today (and I don’t deny that this is a key component of the objective you have set out to undertake with this blog). 

When we come to such a point, after discussing and dissecting every historical aspect and analysing both organism and environment, we may feel compelled to reach into Jesus’ life historically, pull him up through some spiritual ether and plant him into our lives and feed from the trees that grow out of his (oftentimes contrived and perceived) presence.  I think this transition is necessary, but the many processes of doing so is what seems to contribute to the bulk of our misapplication and misinterpretation of Scripture—and that, for whatever anxieties or insecurities or intentions that drive us to do so! 

This brings me to a condensed version of many questions, which is, can we hold these two apparently incongruous ideas in perpetual and productive suspense: of Jesus as historically contextualized and Jesus as ultimately bearing upon our lives?  Could such a conceptualization provide the needed dimensionality in our thinking that allows us to, for example, critically evaluate the new testament account and its authors, yet attribute to them a primary authority?  To recognize all peoples as engaging meaningfully with God in their own particular societies through their own religious traditions, yet accept it as binding upon us to non-judgmentally spread the seed of Christ’s kingdom specifically?  To read the Sermon on the Mount as a marvelous rendering of the greatest need of the hour in Jesus eyes for those Jews, yet to work out ways in our own situations in which those words could be embedded and come to fruition in new and creative ways? 

I get the sense that what conclusions we arrive at are mostly conditional on the way we conceptualize these issues and lay down the footings that mark out possibility before those concepts are even developed.  Any thoughts?

This brings me to a condensed version of many questions, which is, can we hold these two apparently incongruous ideas in perpetual and productive suspense: of Jesus as historically contextualized and Jesus as ultimately bearing upon our lives?

Some great thoughts, here Joseph. Thanks. I don’t see a contradiction between the critical evaluation of the New Testament and the attribution of a primary authority to it. To my mind the primary authority of the New Testament lies precisely in the fact that it has determined the historical existence of the people of God. Our first responsibility as the people of God now is to affirm this historical account of what made us a transformed people, with Christ as king, embodying not only the original blessing of creation but also the hope of new creation. As long as that confession drives our self-understanding, we are freed up to reconceptualize or redescribe our present existence in a multiplicity of ways. So I would suggest that it’s not so much about having to maintain the tension between the past and present as rigorously confessing the past and letting the present take care of itself.

Or we might argue that by loving Muslims we demonstrate in the most powerful way possible that our God is God of the whole earth and not of Christians only.

Yes indeed, or as someone once said… “GOD is not a Christian, nor a Jew, Muslim, Hindu…

This is a fascinating topic, and you bring up some extremely thought-provoking points. Personally, I believe that while we shouldn’t hate our enemies, we shouldn’t be expected to necessarily love them (at least, in today’s world). It’s a very different time now, and (like you said) hopefully that will change one day.

I have never understood why Christians interpret the Sermon the Mount as a blueprint for living. It is a burdensome, heavy yoke that is impossible for the flesh to accomplish, which is why Christ summarized the Sermon with “be ye perfect”. That command is a deal breaker which should lead us to the conclusion He desired… that we are scumbags, incapable of expressing any of the Godly attributes that Jesus embodies, no matter how hard we try.

Jesus took the law which the Jews knew so well, and raised the bar. If you hate, you’re a murderer, and if you lust, you’re an adulterer. They thought things were tough before with the law, and now Jesus says even your thoughts are an abomination! This is radical teaching that would have produced one response in the mind of a 1st century Jew… “I can never do these things.”  

Not so for our generation. Preachers today teach that if we pray hard enough and strive to be like Christ, our corrupted flesh will eventually become so “Spirit filled” that our feet won’t touch the ground when we walk! We can even surpass the mercy of Jesus and forgive the unrepentant! 

Jesus fulfills everything taught in the Sermon on the Mount, which is a glimpse into God’s character and His eternal kingdom. He turned the other cheek and loved His enemies by allowing His Son to enter this sinful world and die for the sins of His elect. For us to think that we can take on these attributes is astonishingly arrogant.