The Great Commandment is one of the most-quoted passages of Scripture in the church: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). This commandment is very closely associated with the popular “Golden Rule”: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.
This commandment is also often seen as the core of the Christian faith, but conversely is also cited as evidence that “all religions are essentially the same.” For example, ReligiousTolerance.org lists versions of the Golden Rule found in a variety of different religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Bahá’í Faith, Confucianism, even an ancient Inca religion. So what is it that actually sets Christianity apart? Not the Great Commandment but a different one, found tucked away in the most famous sermon ever preached: the Sermon on the Mount.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).
Arguably, this is the commandment that rests at the heart of the Christian faith. After all, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). The operative factor of our salvation, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, occurred not because of our righteousness but in spite of our lack thereof. Paul goes on to explicitly refer to us as enemies of God – so I guess you could say that Jesus practiced what he preached.
You know what that means? We can’t be surprised when Christians turn out to be terrible people, or when terrible people become Christians. The church, writes Abigail Van Buren, “is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Christians have become more known for our holier-than-thou posturing than for our grace and mercy, but this shouldn’t be a surprise, either. We are not saints. Our very self-righteousness betrays us. Without the grace of God at work, we are only whitewashed instead of cleansed. Charles Spurgeon once said, “You may break the clods, you may sow your seeds, but what can you do without the rain? As absolutely needful is the divine blessing.” None of our labor has any merit absent grace.
The kind of righteousness that Jesus promoted lies not in works well done, but in the humility it takes to throw oneself at his feet. In the Gospel of Luke, we find this account of Jesus:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
But (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) grace doesn’t stop there. “Love your enemies” takes on an entirely different flavor when you consider the reach of its implications, and I sometimes come away from my own faith with a bitter taste in my mouth. The secular world thinks “love your neighbor” is great; it’s at the core of what it means to be a bleeding-heart liberal. But love your enemies? Love those people who shoot up elementary schools and cops who murder unarmed teenagers? Pray for ISIS? Love my racist relatives, and church leaders who tell me I deserve less of a voice in the church because I’m a woman? Love the old men in MAGA hats? The fact that I don’t like what Jesus says does not make it any less true.
The long and short of it is, who is the one person (or group of people) that you find easiest to hate? Jesus would have you love them. Those of us who follow Jesus do not have the luxury of hatred. Such a response is not an option for someone saved by grace. Otherwise, we would be guilty of withholding from others the very grace from which we benefit every day. Loving our enemies doesn’t mean condoning or tolerating their actions, and it doesn’t mean neglecting the pursuit of justice – but it does mean recognizing that no one (and I do mean NO ONE) is beyond the reach of redemption, and treating them accordingly.
We Christians like to say that “all sin is equal in the eyes of God,” but most of us don’t actually believe it. No one wants to think themselves on the same level as a murderer, not when our sins are as innocuous as gossip or pride and are much easier to whitewash than others. But more importantly, recognizing that no sin is qualitatively more or less sinful than another forces us to admit that Christianity is not the mere safe ride to heaven that was preached to us before the altar call. Rather, Christianity is a call to die to ourselves and give up everything in response to the grace that saved us even though we were enemies of God… and extend that grace to anyone and everyone who needs it. When we approach the throne of grace, we are in poor company, which is sort of the point.
I’m not naïve or blind to the evil that exists in this world: The most painful lesson I’ve ever had to learn is that grace wouldn’t be grace if it weren’t as available to the child molester from my church or my best friend’s rapist as it is to me. As available to the cop as it is to the teenager she murdered. As available to the terrorist as it is to the hundreds of victims he gunned down. As available to my president as it is to the Syrian civilians who became “collateral damage” as a result of his military campaign. God wouldn’t be God if his love did not extend beyond the limitations of what I deem palatable degrees of sin. It’s a lesson I’m still learning, every day.
The offense of the gospel of Jesus Christ is this: that he died to save sinners. As one-time slave trader (and author of “Amazing Grace”) John Newton wrote near the end of his life, “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” Of all the tenets of Christianity I’ve learned throughout my twenty-one years, this one is the hill I choose to die on.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.