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More Than a Frenemy

February 13, 2017

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . .” Matthew 5: 44

The new word, “frenemy” has officially made it past the Urban Dictionary and into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. A frenemy is someone that you are friendly with even though you dislike the person.

This week’s Scripture texts center around some of the main laws in the Bible concerning how we relate to other people—friends and enemies.[1] The Psalmist extols the virtues of following God’s laws: “Teach me, O Lord to follow your decrees . . . Give me understanding , and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart. Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain.” (Psalm 119: 33-36).

Even though the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-17) and the reminders in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Old Testament were written about 1450 years before Christ was born, and over 2,000 years have elapsed since then, the main statutes in the Bible are good examples of plain language. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying . . . You shall not steal . . . you shall not lie to one another . . . You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him . . . you shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:1, 9-18). There is no question about the meaning of these Old Testament laws. Even so, the Pharisees interpreted the verses to give them license to hate their enemies.

But Jesus proclaimed a radical new idea: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ [Exodus 21:24] But I say to you, . . . if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” The language is clear enough, but what does it really mean? Inviting further abuse hardly seems reasonable.

Biblical scholars explain that the Old Testament law permitting an eye for an eye was meant to mitigate blood feuds between tribes who often sought vengeance far in excess of the original injury.[2] The “eye for an eye” rule was meant to limit the bloodshed, not mandate it. Imposing limits on retaliation also made it easier to accept monetary compensation for injuries. The Old Testament mandate was to “love your neighbor as yourself “(Leviticus 19:18). Loving your neighbor means, at the very least, “Don’t retaliate.”

But Jesus goes even beyond that, and tells us not only to love our neighbors, but also to love our enemies: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.” (Matthew 5: 44-45). F.F. Bruce points out that “If it is only our neighbours that we are to love, and the word ‘neighbours’ be defined fairly narrowly, then it might be argued that we are free to hate those who are not our neighbours. But Jesus said, ‘No, love your enemies as well as your neighbours.’”[3] By loving our enemies, Jesus was not referring to a “feeling” of love. He meant that you should give your enemy or neighbor a helping hand if he needs it. Your feelings are important, but irrelevant to the matter of loving your neighbor. Bruce tells a story that Alexander Whyte read in an old diary. A man had to share a house and table with someone he utterly detested. But he started praying about it and later wrote, “Next morning I found it easy to be civil and even benevolent to my neighbor. And I felt at the Lord’s Table today as if I would yet live to love that man. I feel sure I will.”[4] God will give us the ability to pray for and to care about our enemies, if we ask him.

In a blog I wrote last year, I recounted a story told by Corrie Ten Boom when she encountered her former guard from Ravensbruck, the infamous women’s concentration camp where she and her sister were imprisoned during World War II. He stuck out his hand to shake hers after she spoke at a church service in Munich. She later wrote “Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them . . . Lord Jesus . . . I prayed . . . help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. . . As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that . . . when He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command the love itself.” (Ten Boom, The Hiding Place (1971) Chosen Books, p. 215). Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian and contemporary of Ten Boom’s, confirmed that “Forgiveness is the final form of love.”

Loving those who wish to do you harm is not easy. Take it in baby steps. If you can’t pray for the person, whisper his or her name to God in your prayer. He knows how hard it is for you. When the Holy Spirit gives you the grace to go further, you can ask him to meet the person’s needs. Finally, ask God to help you to forgive and to let go of your bitterness. It is harming you more than the person you loathe.

Paul tells us to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21), and quotes Proverbs 25:21-22. To paraphrase, when you give your enemy something to drink and eat you will be rewarded. His counsel is to turn your enemy into a friend. A frenemy?  Not really. Jesus asks you to go further. He asks you to love your enemy.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany are Psalm 119:33-40; Leviticus 19: 1-2; 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3: 10-23; Matthew 5: 38-48.

[2] Kaiser, Davids, Bruce, Brauch (1996) Hard Sayings of the Bible, InterVarsity Press, p. 262).

[3] Bruce (1983) Hard Sayings of Jesus, InterVarsity Press, p. 72).

[4] Id, p. 73

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