The Hardest Commandment

I'd like to see you love MY neighborMatthew 5:43-48

You’ll recall the old law that says, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say love your enemy, wish the best for those who persecute you. That’s what marks you as God’s children.

The sun comes up every day for good and bad alike. And rain gets everyone wet, righteous or wicked.

If you love only those who love you, so what? Any crooked politician can do that. And if you say hello only to the people you already know and like, that’s totally unremarkable. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry does that.

Stand out! And you will show people how limitless God’s love for everyone is really is.

Lets be clear. There isn’t a law in the Hebrew scriptures that says, “Hate your enemy.” Jesus is clearly referring to Leviticus 19:17-18, which says:

You shall not bear hatred in your heart for your family. You call your neighbor out when you see something wrong, but you’re not to take revenge or hold a grudge. Rather you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

But just because it’s not what the law says, doesn’t mean people won’t interpret it that way. Keeping that kind of law isn’t hard at all. It’s what comes naturally, quid pro quo, all of that. A lot of people like that kind of easy law. But, as is sometimes said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves everyone blind and toothless.

What Jesus is asking is much harder. In fact, this is the hardest commandment: Love your enemy. Because, in fact, most of the time when we have enemies, those enemies are are our neighbors. Consider: why is it that it’s often much easier to give $20 to a charity helping people somewhere half way around the globe (victims of earthquakes and famines, for example), but so much harder to help people just across town when the mill shuts down?

The people we are most likely to be at odds with are the people we interact with on a regular basis, our neighbors (if we even know who they are) and our families. Thus, Leviticus. It starts with not holding grudges against those who are closest to you. And not taking revenge on those who have hurt you, who are also more likely to be people nearby. Notice that neither Jesus nor Leviticus says you should be a doormat. “Call your neighbor out.” But that’s it. After that, they’re still your neighbor. Let it go.

Granted: letting go, not holding grudges, not harboring resentment – it’s not easy. Then again, doing something truly remarkable is always hard.

[Bonus observation: If you love only those who love you, so what? Any crooked politician can do that. Herein lies Jesus’ ticket for anyone who wants to be a good politician – and it just might win elections, too. So much for pandering to the religious right (or left).]

Step 3 – Make the Enemy Your Friend

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman
Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Rembrandt, circa. 1650. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
– Matthew 15:21-28

We are learning from Matthew how to do great Kingdom things. Beginning with the story (Matthew 14:13-21) of Jesus feeding the 5000, noted that a similar event takes place at the end of Matthew 15. The two events bookend a series of events in which we learn how to do what Jesus does. The first step was the crossing of the sea (Matthew 14:22-33) in which we learned the importance of working through internal self-doubt to discover faith. Step 2 was the confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes in which we learned that to do what Jesus has in mind, we have to be willing to break a few rules.

Step 3 takes us into a foreign land – Tyre and Sidon. And, for the exposition that follows, I’m greatly indebted to Simon Harak.

Jesus has been rejected by the leaders of his own people and he ends up in this northern region. Some suggest that this is a popular vacation spot, and Jesus is still trying to get some time off after having heard of John the Baptist’s death, the event which set this whole chain of stories in motion. And, while it may be plausible that Jesus is looking for a little R&R, it’s also true that, even if for now the people in general are receptive to Jesus, his demonstration of sympathy for the common folk is beginning to garner the not-so-welcome notice of the authorities.

This fact of Jesus’ rejection is the key to understanding the exchange that follows with this Canaanite woman. But first some additional background:

  • In this culture (as is still true of many cultures throughout the Middle East today) an honor code dictates who can interact with whom and on what terms. We see this same honor code in play in the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:9). This same honor code would dictate that a Canaanite woman shouldn’t be approaching a Jewish man and speaking without first having been spoken to, let alone making requests of him.
  • Faced with this breach of propriety, Jesus can (according to accepted convention) do one of two things. He can either pretend it didn’t happen or he can point out her inappropriate behavior. At first, he attempts the first option: “But he did not answer her at all.” But when she continues, the disciples, embarrassed by the behavior, want him to send her away. So he attempts option 2: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This response clearly identifies the nature of the breach in protocol in a manner that allows the woman to correct her behavior without embarrassing her.
  • Rather than correct her behavior, however, she throws herself at her feet, signaling that he must deal with her one way or another. There will be no easy out for either of them.

This is the situation when Jesus speaks these words that trouble so many pious Christians: “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Under the circumstances, it is the only remaining socially acceptable response.

But here is where the key fits: Jesus has been rejected by the leaders of his people, those who have the say-so about what is available on the table for those who call themselves God’s children. So she says, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. Jesus has called her a dog, and she in turn, takes him down to the level of a crumb cast off the table, as if to say, “Well, crumb, here you are: you may once have been a Jew, but now you have fallen to me, and I will have my right.”

This is when Jesus says, “great is your faith.” One of only two people Jesus ever says this to. (Contrast this with the scene on the sea with Peter and Jesus saying, “Oh, you of little faith.”) This woman, the enemy, has great faith, the self-assuredness we spoke of in Step 1, great enough to approach Jesus, toe to toe, and confident enough to realize that she was going to have to break the rules to do what was needed for her daughter (contrast this with the Pharisees attitude toward taking care of family members). And she was ready to treat Jesus, not as a pious icon, but a real person, bound by the same cultural constraints as the rest of the world, so that in speaking the truth she became the instrument of his salvation as much as he was the instrument of hers.

So, by the end of this encounter, they are no longer bound in unequal relationship by the cultural constraints of their time and place. They are equals: each the savior of the other. The enemy has become a friend. How? By the recognition that just because someone is an enemy doesn’t mean they can’t have great faith, and that great faith, no matter who wields it, holds the capacity for liberation.

Finally, we have all three steps necessary to return to Galilee and to care for and feed the multitudes again. They are:

  1. Confront the self-doubt within and come to a place of faith in your own capacity to do what’s right;
  2. Stand up to those who make rules and criticisms aimed at distracting you from doing what’s right; and
  3. Recognize that in the enemy and other there is the possibility of redemption, not just for them, but for yourself.

What’s next?

Jesus returns to Galilee to heal and feed the multitudes again. The disciples still haven’t learned, and question where they are to get enough bread to feed everyone. But, hopefully, we who are looking on have learned what Jesus is trying to lead them to do.

What enemies have you had the courage to engage with lately? And, have you been able to recognize in your enemy any liberating truth about yourself? Could this be why Jesus said it was so important to love your enemy? Could our enemies really be the instruments of our very salvation?