It is a little known fact that Jesus' earthly ministry took place in a period of intense religiously inspired terrorism in Judea. The existence of the Roman occupation in Palestine caused a variety of internal conflicts between different Jewish elements who either cooperated with or opposed the Romans. Assassinations and murders were a common practice in these internecine struggles. In that respect the atmosphere surrounding Jesus and his listeners was very reminiscent of our own.
Out of this violence charged Jewish situation, Jesus delivered those stupendous words- Love your enemies. How in the world did he manage to come up with that direction in the midst of so many who perceived themselves surrounded by murderous opponents, both internal and external? In a time of relative peace, maybe folks could possibly consider such a counter intuitive thought; but in the midst of so many enemies, this statement seemed more than ludicrous. It was down right dangerous and delusional.
What did Jesus have in mind? Why say something that makes him look like a fool in the eyes of many hearers? What good purpose could come of telling people in mortal danger from others that they should respond in love? If I love and end up dead as a result what good did I accomplish? Surely all these questions came to mind when many heard these words from Jesus. And, of course, the same ones arise today.
Whenever people encounter a perceived enemy, they are faced with a decision about how to respond. We all recognize the normal tendency to resort to violence, verbally and physically. The traditional way to deal with an enemy is to defeat him in whatever fashion it takes. Instead of loving the enemy, we want to hate him and, in effect, hate him out of existence. That may mean destruction, segregation, or pain induced behavior modification.
We recognize that the subject of love is integral to the message of the NT. But do we know what the term even means? Is love something that wells up in our heart spontaneously or is it generated as the result of a decision? Does love require compatibility of thought, speech, and behavior or does it eclipse any differences? Must real love be reciprocated or is the unrequited type real? What is the difference between loving someone and liking them, finding their company pleasant? How do we manage to love family members who misbehave, when a similar experience with an outsider would create an enemy in our minds?
All of these issues come to mind in trying to understand Jesus' words. If hate is the direct opposite of love, maybe Jesus could be paraphrased to say, don't hate your enemy. Don't respond in kind. Don't create an enemy where one doesn't actually exist by treating others as if they are. Don't poison your own soul with hate in trying to control others; that is a lost cause.
It's undeniable that the words of Jesus seem bizarre to our carnal mind. But if what Jesus had to say was not extremely extraordinary, how could those words be worthy of the awe inspiring newness and blessings of God's completed purpose in Christ? If eye for an eye justice is the rule beyond Christ, what did Jesus really change?