After a short hiatus this Spring, the Monday Notes on Prayer feature returns. This week I offer a short discussion on prayer for one’s enemies, in light of the past Sunday Psalm Study on Psalm 72. In that particular Psalm, the poet presents a prayer to God on behalf of the king. In the opening verse, YHWH is asked to give sound judgment and right decision-making to the Israelite king, so that the king’s reign will be peaceful and prosperous, characterized by justice and righteousness, especially on behalf of the poor and oppressed in society.
I have to wonder how many Christians today actually pray for the nation’s leaders and governing officials, in a similar way, asking that God might grant to them wisdom and sound judgment. In the vicious partisan climate of modern politics—which characterizes the darkness of the world, and not the light of God—it is much easier to speak ill of people in positions of government, mocking and berating them. The tendency (and temptation) to respond in such a way is all the greater when the governing officials hold views and positions that are opposite to those which we, as Christians, might hold. In that regard, the nation’s leaders could be considered opponents, or enemies, and one might well be inclined to speak ill or evil of them. But this is not the way of Christ, who taught his disciples to pray, even for their enemies—on behalf of all those who might be hostile to them.
Matthew 5:44-45; Luke 6:27-28, 35
Jesus’ clearest sayings in this regard are found in the Matthean ‘Sermon on the Mount’, and the parallel Lukan ‘Sermon on the Plain’ —that is, part of the so-called “Q” material. In the Sermon on the Mount, the sayings occur within the “Antitheses” of 5:21-47, so-called because of the way that Jesus contrasts a customary/traditional saying with his own teaching—e)gw\ de\ le/gw u(mi=n (“but I say to you…”). Jesus’ argument differs in each Antithesis; the customary saying may reflect a distortion of the original meaning and intent of the Law, or he may argue that simply following the letter of the Law is insufficient. The six Antitheses may be divided as follows:
The sayings in question are part of the six and final Antithesis, on showing love toward one’s enemies.
On love for one’s enemies (vv. 43-47)
- Customary saying:
“you shall love your neighbor [lit. the one near] and (you shall) hate your enemy [lit. the one hostile]” (v. 43)
- Customary saying:
- Jesus’ saying:
“love your enemies and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] over the ones pursuing [i.e. persecuting] you” (v. 44)
- Jesus’ saying:
Relation to the Law:
The saying is extracted from Leviticus 19:18 [LXX], a verse frequently cited in the New Testament (Matt 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:9, cf. below); however here the phrase “as yourself” (w($ seauto/n) is not included as part of the citation, presumably to better fit the second part of the saying. The second half of the saying does not come from the Old Testament Scripture at all, but should be regarded as a customary and natural (logical) extension—if one should love one’s friends and neighbors, the opposite would seem to follow: that we should hate our enemies. For the principle expressed in ethical-philosophical terms, see e.g., the Delphic aphorism (“to friends be of good mind [i.e. be kind], with enemies keep [them] away [i.e. defend against, ward off]”) and the famous maxim in Xenophon Mem. 2.6.35 etc. (“a man is virtuous [on the one hand] in prevailing [over] friends in doing good, and [on the other] [over] enemies in [doing] ill”).
Jesus flatly contradicts the conventional wisdom, commanding his disciples instead to love one’s enemies and to pray to God on their behalf. This relates both to personal enemies and to those who persecute [lit. pursue] Jesus’ followers (cf. in the Beatitudes, vv. 10-12). Of all Jesus’ statements in the Antitheses, this represents the most distinctive Christian teaching, and the one which is perhaps most difficult to follow. As in most of the other Antitheses (see above), Jesus extends the Torah command and gives it a deeper meaning—in addition to loving one’s friends and relatives, one must also love one’s enemies.
As the basis for this command, Jesus cites as an example (verse 45) God the Father himself who:
- makes the sun to rise upon the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people alike
- sends the rain upon the ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ people alike
In some ways this is a curious example, drawing from simple observance of natural phenomena, apart from any ethical or religious considerations—for certainly, we see many instances in Scripture where God brings evil and judgment against wicked/unjust people. However, the emphasis here is on the more fundamental nature of God as Creator—giver and preserver of life.
Verses 46-47 provide a clearer application of Jesus’ teaching, and is parallel to the statement in verse 20. The so-called “love command”, with its extension even to one’s enemies, proved to have immense influence in subsequent Christian teaching, even if the force of it was sometimes softened—cf. Rom 12:19-21 (citing Prov 25:21-22). In Galatians 5:14 Paul refers to the love-command (as represented by Lev 19:18) as “all the Law fulfilled in one word”. There are various forms of Jesus’ saying in verse 44 preserved elsewhere in early Christian writings, which may reflect independent transmission: Luke 6:27-28; Romans 12:14; Didache 1:3; 2 Clement 13:4; Justin Martyr First Apology 15.9; Athenagoras’ Plea for Christians 11.1; Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus 3:14; cf. also 1 Corinthians 4:12; Justin Dialogue 35:8; 85:7; 96:3; Clementine Homilies 12:32.
Ultimately the purpose (and result) of following Jesus’ teaching is stated in verse 45a:
“how that [i.e. so that] you may come to be sons [i.e. children] of your Father in the heavens”
This demonstrates a clear connection with the language and imagery of the Beatitudes (esp. v. 9); by following God’s own example (in Christ), we come to be like him—the same idea which concludes the Antitheses in verse 48.
The Lukan Version
“But I say to the (one)s hearing (me): ‘Love your enemies, do good [kalw=$ poiei=te] to the (one)s hating you, give good account of [i.e. speak well of, bless] the (one)s bringing down a curse on you, (and) speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] over the (one)s (hurl)ing insults upon you‘.”
The portions in bold match the shorter Matthean saying, the only difference being that, instead of praying for those who persecute (lit. pursue [after]) them, Jesus’ disciples are to pray for those who “hurl insults upon (them)” (vb e)phrea/zw). However, since e)phrea/zw can also connote putting forth threats against a person, the two versions of the saying may not really differ all that much.
However, the Lukan saying is more extensive, citing four kinds of hostile acts (instead of two in Matthew), thus placing even greater emphasis on the disciples responding with love, and the challenge that is involved in doing so. No matter how such people mistreat us or act as our enemies, we, as believers in Christ, must not respond in a like manner, but instead do good to them and pray for them.
“(But) all the more you must love your enemies, and do good [a)gaqopoiei=te], and lend (to them) without expecting (anything) back from (them)—and (then) your wage [i.e. reward] will be much, and you will be sons of (the) Highest…”