Our Valentine's question comes from Walton County resident Elaine: "Do we have to love our neighbor and our enemies all the time?"
This question has its roots in Leviticus 19.18 and 19.34 as well as its cognates in Matthew 5.44 and 22.37-40. The Old Testament commands were "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19.18) and "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Lev. 19.34).
It is interesting to note that the ancient Israelite command to love extended only to those with whom you might have contact to your own people and others who lived in the land with you. The command didn't include, nor was it generally interpreted to include, those who lived in far-away places. Thus the question posed to Jesus in Luke 10.29, "Who is my neighbor" was a legitimate question of the law.
Enter Jesus, Son of God and Rabbi supreme. Jesus reinterpreted the Levitical laws of love. Already by the days of Jesus the world had shrunk significantly. Deeds done in Palestine often affected the residents of Rome, Egypt, and Assyria and vice versa. Jesus redefined a neighbor to include those living in other societies, as taught by his Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10.30-37). But Jesus went a step further not only were his followers to love their neighbors, including those in the larger sense they were to love their enemies.
The command to love one's enemy had real significance to the Jews in Palestine. Rome had made Israel a vassal state and occupied it years before Jesus' birth. The people chaffed under the Roman government and there were several attempts to raise up a political messiah, but to no avail. When Jesus redefined the Levitical laws to include even Rome it was a radical departure from past interpretations.
But there it is. A clear command to love our neighbors and to love our enemies.
But there's an implication here . . . Jesus implied that we're going to have enemies. Enemies who may not like us, let alone love us. Of course we're not commanded to "like everyone and everything everyone does." The command is to love our enemies with the knowledge we're going to have enemies.
So what's our part in the command; what does loving our enemies entail? Well, that's the problem with translating from Greek; we lose a great deal in the translation. Here the word "love" is from the Greek agape. Agape is one of three Greek words we translate as love (eros and phileo are the other two). Agape is the purest form of love and, in Christian circles, it is likened to the love God has for creation. But the word has a wider meaning than this.
Agape implies love in a social/moral sense. Agape is illustrated by our insistence that the Soviet Union have enough grain to feed its famine-struck people during the Cold War. It is illustrated by insuring even drug-lords get a fair trial through our justice system. And on a more personal level, agape love is the personal responsibility each of us takes to insure mercy and fairness is imparted equitably to the office gossip, the neighborhood busybody, and the cantankerous boss even behind their backs.
But do we get to take a break from loving our neighbors and our enemies? Fortunately, no. Imagine a world in which we could decide who deserved justice and mercy and fairness. Who would decide when we deserved it? On my part, I'd be afraid to delegate this to anyone. So no, we don't have permission to stop loving our neighbors or even our enemies even when we don't think they deserve it.