Bonhoeffer :: Chapter 13 The Enemy

We’re continuing on in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. We left off, if you remember, with Jesus seated on a hill talking to his disciples. The disciples have been with Jesus for a little while now. They have seen him do the impossible (healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the hungry) and they are beginning to suspect Jesus is more. Jesus is more than a just a teacher, more than just a rabbi, maybe more than just a man. Jesus has their full attention.

And Jesus is now telling the disciples what it will mean to be his followers. To be a disciple means showing obedience to a new way of living. Jesus says "You have heard it said … But I say to you" and the disciples must tread the path that Jesus lays out. Jesus is talking now about our relationship to our enemies.

Matt 5
43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? 48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Jesus again is issuing an extraordinary command. Love your enemies! What could be more ridiculous than this? We humans seem to have a built in sense of morality that has a certain amount of commonality across time, space, and culture. While people from different cultures have done things differently, almost every culture promotes loving and caring for your family, being brave, being honest (to your friends at least), displaying loyalty to your nation, tribe or race and so on. These are examples of common morality, what C. S. Lewis called the "Tao". They apparently make sense to most people and we instinctively feel that they are right.

Loving your enemies is not part of this common morality. Most cultures have a word for people who love their enemies: traitors. If you don’t believe me, you can test people’s reaction yourself. Tell someone, even another Christian, that you have been praying for the safety of Iraqi soldiers and you very likely will get a lecture in response. Put up a banner in your window that says "God bless America/God Bless Iraq". Just don’t be surprised if even mere lip service to loving your enemies draws others’ ire. Jesus here is describing a way of living that is quite beyond human imagination. We literally can’t quite get our minds around the idea of loving our enemies. Surely, we tend to think, there must be some way to soften what he says. Surely he doesn’t mean we have to love really evil people or people who actually want to do us harm.

How are we to understand his instructions? I recently listened to a sermon by a local minister who argued that the Sermon on the Mount must be understood in a personal sense that in no way conflicts with our duty to obey the Government and wage war when necessary.

This understanding is facile and ignores the historical setting of the Gospels. I have no doubt the disciples were just as scandalized at hearing these words as we are today. Remember! This wasn’t just an abstraction to the disciples: they had daily contact with their enemy. They lived in occupied territories and suffered under the depredations of Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and Roman administration. When Jesus said "enemy" I have no doubt at all that they (especially Simon the zealot) heard "Roman".

How hard it must have been (how hard it still is) to hear Jesus gives the details he expected from those who would follow the path of discipleship: bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us and pray for our persecutors. These are all active and participatory commands. Jesus has previously told us to endure evil and not to return evil for evil. Now he calls us to respond to evil, but with love. Where the old law commanded the Jews to overcome their enemies with separation and warfare, Jesus wants us to overcome with good deeds and prayer. To be a follower of God is still to be a warrior, but the weapons of our warfare have changed!

We could talk at length about the impact of the Sermon on the Mount in a time of war. I take it for granted that actual warfare, the taking of our enemies life, is outside the realm of the Christian. To feel otherwise is to make Jesus’ sayings of no account and renders this new way of obedience to be the same as the old one but with fancier language. I will not speak directly of war and bloodshed.

I do think, however, that other issues may slip under our notice in time of war. Do you find yourself only caring about US casualties? Do you feel encouraged when you hear battle reports of 1000 or 2000 Iraqi deaths? God does not value US lives above Iraqi lives. I want to challenge you today: pray for the people of Iraq! If you pray for the soldiers fighting for the US, pray also for the soldiers fighting for Iraq. When you come into contact with Christians who seem to consider God’s will and the US’s plans to be very nearly simultaneous, do you tend to just tiptoe around the subject of loving our enemies? I encourage you to hold other Christians accountable to the Scriptures.

Jesus’ words do not only apply in time of war, of course. In fact he goes on to make explicit application to social circumstances. As humans we tend to respond to love with love, and Jesus does not condemn that. But he says it isn’t anything to be proud of either. Nearly everybody does! If you are friendly only to your friends you are again falling within that common morality, you are doing what pretty much everyone thinks you should do.

Jesus is raising the bar again, and we would do well to listen to what he is saying. In the Church, are their people you like better than others? Of course, but Jesus says your greeting, your fellowship, your declarations of love should be to everyone, not just the people you get along with the easiest.

This morning, Jesus words are as challenging as they were 2000 years ago to a small group of men on a hillside. But we can be encouraged by drawing from His example: He loved everyone, even those who drove nails in his hands. He demonstrated his Love by laying down his life, even though we were still sinners. Jesus is asking us to walk an extraordinary path, the path of Love for all. But it is a road that he walked on ahead of us. All we have to do is follow. And that is what it means to be a disciple.