Did Jesus really say to love your enemies?
Excerpt from Chapter 11: The Apostle of Love
In two of the gospels Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” What is the practical logic behind that kind of love? And if there is a practical logic behind it, why isn’t the logic sensed by Paul, who never utters these words?
Actually, though Paul doesn’t say “Love your enemies,” he comes pretty close. So close, in fact, as to suggest that he did sense the logic behind it—that, in fact, he may be the one who injected the idea into Christian literature. Only later, perhaps, was it attributed to Jesus, if in fuller and richer form.
The “Love your enemy” injunction, as we’ve seen, appears in both Matthew and Luke. In the Matthew version, Jesus says, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In the letter to the Romans, written more than a decade before Matthew or Luke was written, Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” And if Paul doesn’t quite say to love your enemies, he does add “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Paul also says, in that same passage, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil … never avenge yourselves.” Similarly, Jesus, just before advising people to love their enemies, says, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
Of course, it’s not surprising that Paul would favor the same cluster of ideas as Jesus, given that he’s something of a Jesus aficionado. But if Paul is repeating the words of Jesus, why doesn’t he buttress their authority by saying so? He is, after all, talking to a bunch of Jesus worshippers. And why doesn’t he repeat the pithiest and most dramatic version of Jesus’s sayings on this subject: “Love your enemy”?
It’s possible that Paul just isn’t very conversant with the sayings of Jesus—but not probable. After all, by Paul’s account he had spent two weeks in Jerusalem lodging with the apostle Peter, and he also met Jesus’s brother, James. For that matter, he spent pretty much all of his time in the circles where Jesus’s words circulated. Surely he would have caught wind of one of the most striking things Jesus ever said—if, that is, Jesus actually said it.
The same question arises with the doctrine of brotherly love. By the time the book of John quotes Jesus telling his followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another,” this actually wasn’t a new commandment; Paul had started issuing that injunction to Jesus’s followers decades earlier. Similarly, before the other three gospels depicted Jesus telling people to fulfill the Jewish Law by loving your neighbor as yourself, Paul had told the Galatians that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And here, too, he makes no mention of Jesus having said much the same thing.
We’ve seen the pragmatic value of brotherly love and so seen how Paul could have happened on this precept without inspiration from Jesus. But what about “Love your enemy”? If Jesus didn’t really say that, then where on earth did Paul get the idea?
Maybe from facts on the ground—facts that gave Paul reason to see the wisdom of passive perseverance in the face of enmity. Paul was part of a religious minority that was widely resented and that, if it didn’t demonstrate restraint amid provocation, could be persecuted to the point of extinction. In that sense his situation was quite like that of Philo, another adherent of a suspect faith in the Roman Empire of the first century. Philo, as we’ve seen, adapted by urging fellow Jews not to antagonize the pagan majority—and by working to find a doctrine of interfaith tolerance in the Jewish scripture.
Certainly Paul seems to have known that an onslaught of kindness can frustrate the enemy by denying him what he most wants: a rationale for hatred, a pretext for attack. After urging Christians to give food and drink to their enemies, he adds, “for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Actually, Paul wasn’t the first to figure out that befriending an enemy can be a potent counterattack. His “burning coals” line comes from Proverbs, where it is preceded by this advice: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.” Paul, in injecting the doctrine of kindness toward enemies into Christianity, wasn’t just being wise; he was being wise with the guidance of the Hebrew wisdom literature.…