“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…” – Luke 6:27
When we preach this famous text in America, our interpretation can lend toward a dire reach of overly simplistic applications – Does anyone here have an enemy? Oh, surely you’ve been made fun of for reading your bible at work? Stand bold! Pray loud around that flagpole! And, at times we’ll faithfully tread into the deep waters of personal heartache asking, “Were you abused as a child?” or “Abandoned by a spouse.” These elements being about as close to “enemy” as most Americans may understand.
And, I cannot demean our pulpiteering as heretical for in the richest nation, in the richest period, of all human history, there simply aren’t many diving boards upon which we can make a proper splash into applications of enemy and hardship.
Yet, I do think it’s important we truly understand the cultural poignancy of the original scripture text, and shower our listeners with it’s poignancy, before we jump to simplified conclusions.
For example, when this sermon on the mount (or the plain) was given, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…”, Jesus was looking into the eyes of friends and disciples who would in just a few years endure some of man’s greatest torture – From 66AD-70Ad Rome, under Titus, besieged Jerusalem, and Eusebius recounts via Josephus, what these disciples of Christ were to endure…
1. Nowhere was food to be seen; but, bursting into the houses men searched them thoroughly, and whenever they found anything to eat they tormented the owners on the ground that they had denied that they had anything; but if they found nothing, they tortured them on the ground that they had more carefully concealed it.
2. The proof of their having or not having food was found in the bodies of the poor wretches. Those of them who were still in good condition they assumed were well supplied with food, while those who were already wasted away they passed by, for it seemed absurd to slay those who were on the point of perishing for want.
3. Many, indeed, secretly sold their possessions for one measure of wheat, if they belonged to the wealthier class, of barley if they were poorer. Then shutting themselves up in the innermost parts of their houses, some ate the grain uncooked on account of their terrible want, while others baked it according as necessity and fear dictated.
4. Of all evils, indeed, famine is the worst, and it destroys nothing so effectively as shame. For that which under other circumstances is worthy of respect, in the midst of famine is despised. Thus women snatched the food from the very mouths of their husbands and children, from their fathers, and what was most pitiable of all, mothers from their babes. And while their dearest ones were wasting away in their arms, they were not ashamed to take away from them the last drops that supported life.
5. Old men who clung to their food were beaten, and if the women concealed it in their hands, their hair was torn for so doing. There was pity neither for gray hairs nor for infants, but, taking up the babes that clung to their morsels of food, they dashed them to the ground. But to those that anticipated their entrance and swallowed what they were about to seize, they were still more cruel, just as if they had been wronged by them.
6. And when any one crept out of the city by night as far as the outposts of the Romans to collect wild herbs and grass, they went to meet him; and when he thought he had already escaped the enemy, they seized what he had brought with him, and even though oftentimes the man would entreat them, and, calling upon the most awful name of God, adjure them to give him a portion of what he had obtained at the risk of his life, they would give him nothing back. Indeed, it was fortunate if the one that was plundered was not also slain.
7. To this account Josephus, after relating other things, adds the following: The possibility of going out of the city being brought to an end, all hope of safety for the Jews was cut off. And the famine increased and devoured the people by houses and families. And the rooms were filled with dead women and children, the lanes of the city with the corpses of old men.
8. Children and youths, swollen with the famine, wandered about the marketplaces like shadows, and fell down wherever the death agony overtook them. The sick were not strong enough to bury even their own relatives, and those who had the strength hesitated because of the multitude of the dead and the uncertainty as to their own fate. Many, indeed, died while they were burying others, and many betook themselves to their graves before death came upon them.
9. But the robbers were more terrible than these miseries; for they broke open the houses, which were now mere sepulchres, robbed the dead and stripped the covering from their bodies, and went away with a laugh. They tried the points of their swords in the dead bodies, and some that were lying on the ground still alive they thrust through in order to test their weapons. But those that prayed that they would use their right hand and their sword upon them, they contemptuously left to be destroyed by the famine. Every one of these died with eyes fixed upon the temple; and they left the seditious alive.
10. These at first gave orders that the dead should be buried out of the public treasury, for they could not endure the stench. But afterward, when they were not able to do this, they threw the bodies from the walls into the trenches. And as Titus went around and saw the trenches filled with the dead, and the thick blood oozing out of the putrid bodies, he groaned aloud, and, raising his hands, called God to witness that this was not his doing.
11. Necessity compelled them to eat anything they could find, and they gathered and devoured things that were not fit even for the filthiest of irrational beasts. Finally they did not abstain even from their girdles and shoes, and they stripped the hides off their shields and devoured them. Some used even wisps of old hay for food, and others gathered stubble and sold the smallest weight of it for four Attic drachma.
12. One woman named Mary, seizing her child, a boy which was sucking at her breast, she said, Oh, wretched child, in war, in famine, in sedition, for what do I preserve you? Slaves among the Romans we shall be even if we are allowed to live by them. But even slavery is anticipated by the famine, and the rioters are more cruel than both. Come, be food for me, a fury for these rioters, and a bye-word to the world, for this is all that is wanting to complete the calamities of the Jews. And when she had said this she slew her son; and having roasted him, she ate one half herself, and covering up the remainder, she kept it. Very soon the rioters appeared on the scene, and, smelling the nefarious odor, they threatened to slay her immediately unless she should show them what she had prepared. She replied that she had saved an excellent portion for them, and with that she uncovered the remains of the child. They were immediately seized with horror and amazement and stood transfixed at the sight. But she said, This is my own son, and the deed is mine. Eat for I too have eaten. Be not more merciful than a woman, nor more compassionate than a mother. But if you are too pious and shrink from my sacrifice, I have already eaten of it; let the rest also remain for me. At these words the men went out trembling, in this one case being affrighted; yet with difficulty did they yield that food to the mother. Forthwith the whole city was filled with the awful crime, and as all pictured the terrible deed before their own eyes, they trembled as if they had done it themselves. Those that were suffering from the famine now longed for death; and blessed were they that had died before hearing and seeing miseries like these. Such was the reward which the Jews received for their wickedness and impiety, against the Christ of God.
So, may each who read the Scriptures understand the grave underlying tones of Christ’s urge upon His original listener and thereby urge his own soul, family, and church, to not count it suffering until he’s truly suffered. And, one day when confronted with the stark realities of actual suffering, like his ancestor’s, recall Christ on the mountain urgently shouting, “love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”