Agapé: The Love of God
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’
44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
These words spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are among the most talked of in Christianity, yet sadly it would appear they are also the ones most taken for granted. What I mean in saying this is not that Christians today are not aware of them, but that very few of us say them without grasping the full impact of what Jesus is admonishing us to do. There is perhaps no other commandment more radical, and at the same time more difficult to follow, than that which drives us to love our enemies. Each one of us may even have a different interpretation of what this passage means, but let us put these aside for just one moment and get into the context of the situation here.
In the timeline that Matthew gives us, Jesus’ great sermon takes place after He has gained some prominence and a growing curiosity amongst the masses. Jesus has been baptised by John, He’s been driven into the desert for His fasting and temptation, and afterward he begins His ministry; His disciples are called, He’s begun preaching, and the author tells us that He is “healing every disease and every affliction among the people (4:23).” So Jesus at this point has already come in full force, His preaching and His supernatural powers drawing people in and getting them talking. And during the course of this epic speech, he intersperses this teaching about how we must react to evil and enmity with love. This is a concept so hard to swallow that it’s exact meaning has been debated, discussed, and dare I say it – even outright rejected in the process of enactment by those who feel that Jesus must surely have been saying something different than is readily apparent. With this in mind, I would like to take us through an unpacking of this passage starting with the words that Jesus references.
“Eye for an eye” are words which strike more of a chord with the human spirit. This mandate was emphasised in the Mosaic Law as a punishment which fit the crime; If you murder, then your life must be taken, if you’ve stolen then you must repay, etc, and it also stood as a deterrent against excessive retaliation. As long as this law was in effect, a person could only be given reparation against their offender in the exact measure they were victimised themselves.
Now, the words that Jesus uses when referring to this law are important to note, because although He is referring to a scriptural admonishment, He does not use the words “You have seen it written.” Jesus isn’t just referring to scripture, to something that has been laid down as divine law and set in stone. He’s addressing both the Mosaic Law itself as well as the prevalent attitude at the time. He does this with each one of His detailed commandments in this speech, and it infers that He is speaking not just to the Hebrew religion, but also to the human heart. In this sense as well, Jesus’ appeal to change our way of thinking isn’t just rooted in the Mosaic law itself, but rather every single way of thinking with which “eye for an eye” aligns, including Genesis 9:6.
The second half appears to be an expanding, as it were, on the first… where before Jesus was talking about the Mosaic law of retaliation, He’s now speaking of our attitude towards enemies. Again, using the words “you have heard it said,” He now speaks of our familiar attitude of loving only our neighbours and hating our enemies. It wasn’t a scriptural necessity to only love one’s neighbour, and in fact there are various places in the Old Testament where the concept of loving an enemy wasn’t alien at all (Proverbs 25:21-22), but of course this must again be balanced against the prevailing human instinct, and this is one in which loving the friend exclusively is a common attribute. It’s simply not in our nature to have compassion for someone who feels the exact opposite toward us. In fact, this was even taken for granted by those who were seemingly filled with love for God. Psalm 139 is one of the most quoted by Christians as a beautiful examination of the supreme love God feels for His children, talking about how God knows our innermost being, how He knitted us in the womb, and how we can never escape His presence no matter how hard we may try. But you’ll usually only see that psalm quoted about two thirds of the way through! In the last section, the Psalmist speaks of how he wishes God would slay his enemies, and appears to boast of honour in as much as he hates those who hate God! To the Psalmist here, there didn’t seem to be any great contradiction between loving God and having contempt for His opposition.
If we are to gain a greater understanding of what it means to love an enemy, then it might help to look at the precise kind of language that Jesus is using. We lose this in modern translations of the Bible, but there are actually three distinct words for love in the New Testament Greek, and it might be helpful to give an introduction to these terms as we go along.
The first kind of love is Eros, which infers a kind of romantic, deeply intimate love like the kind we would have for a partner or a spouse. It’s a type of affection which is expressed in a deeper way than the kind we might feel for a friend or a blood relative. Then there is Philia, which is a familiar, sentimental love. We feel this toward friends and family members. We love those toward whom we feel a certain kind of affinity, and we love them because we in turn are loved by them. The third kind, which we’ll be talking about in more depth now, is Agape.
Christian writers have generally described agape, as expounded on by Jesus, as a form of love which is both unconditional and voluntary; that is, it is non-discriminating with no pre-conditions and is something that one decides to do. Saint Paul described love as follows: “Love (agape) is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) Tertullian, in his 2nd century defense of Christians remarks how Christian love attracted pagan notice: “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our loving kindness.’Only look’ they say, ‘look how they love one another.'”
Agapé, the self-sacrifical love which God commands us to have both for Him and our fellow man, is a means of recognising our nature and God’s. It does not depend upon philia, which is a kind of familiar love we bear for our friends and family…. Agapé is a love God wishes us to have in common for all, whether we have philia for them or not. It is a universal love which places a person on the same standing as ourselves even if they hate us and wish us nothing but harm. It is a love we are expected to hold for both kind neighbour and hateful oppressor alike. The kind of love which seeks God’s goodness in their life as well as the lives of our friends, family, and even ourselves. A love by which we love each other as a church in the acknowledgement of the one who saved us, and the outside world in acknowledgement of the God who loves them despite of their unbelief. Agapé is indeed the means by which we become more like God in Christ.
It is the same love that Jesus is speaking of when He tells us to love our enemies. This love is unconditional, so we don’t offer it with any prerequisites. This Biblical concept of agapé is sometimes spoken of in psychological, biological, and sociological terms as altruism. This is a quality that some has when they show concern for someone other than themselves. We can say that the Good Samaritan expressed altruism when he came to the aid of the Jew on the road to Jericho; this is an act of selflessness, whereby we put aside the thoughts of ourselves, and focus on the needs of our fellow man. Altruism is quite well documented in scientific fields as something quite beneficial to the advancement of a species. In evolutionary biology, there is a school of though made popular by Richard Dawkins and thinkers like him that the progression of any particular species is simply a matter of genes. The genes are selfish, not in a personal, anthropomorphic sense, but in the manner that our genetic material only continues to replicate and our bodies are the vessels for which it does so. There is the self, and then there is the need to survive and fulfil all that comes with survival. To this end, even selflessness, this altruism, is beneficial to the propagation of the genes in what seems like a never-ending story of life, death, and reproduction. And all this is not to say that those views are necessarily inaccurate, but rather that they are incomplete. Many Christians get the wrong end of the stick because of the opinions of scientists like Dawkins, they feel that evolutionary science and other disciplines like it are against the word of God, or that they are somehow misleading and untrue, but that’s only because these scientists have largely missed the point. Science and religion are two separate disciplines, and they are conducted in different ways that we respond to them individually, and if viewed in the correct light then they can only compliment each other. The problem of course, is that many tough-minded scientists have failed to see the hand of God in their work, leading those among the spiritual to believe them. In a situation like this, neither side seems to see that science and religion work to interpret the other even though they are separate.
And even in this light, science may have missed what altruism truly is. Altruism may be a definite observation which is beneficial to the furthering of a species in its existence, but even this can only go so far when confronted by instinct. Even human beings, who prefer to think of themselves as exalted above the animal kingdom, have shown themselves to be slaves to the concept of instinct when the going gets tough. And when we are confronted by an enemy, this is where altruism ends and instinct takes over.
Agape, this Biblical concept, may well be greater than the scientific concept of altruism. If we were to compare the two at all, we may have to view agape as a universal altruism.
Certainly agapé is a very best an extremely difficult ideological goal, but I don’t perceive it to be so lofty that it is entirely unachievable. This is where many people miss the point… the kind of objective universal altruism of which Jesus speaks isn’t even possible apart from God. This is why I find it somewhat irksome when people say that they believe in the teachings and morality of the Bible but don’t believe in the spiritual foundation of it. Not because I have an objection to them holding such a belief, but because 9 times out of 10 it’s not going to be true. For example, when a friend of mine told me he believed in Jesus’ teachings but not in His spiritual nature, I asked him if he believed likewise that he could forgive someone who murdered his family. The expectant response: “Hell no.”
Now granted, rhetorical hyperbole in that instance is a somewhat extreme case, but it also serves to drive home the reality of what Jesus was attempting to get across. When He says “Love those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute and spitefully use you,” He means it. This is what agapé truly is, and this is when its nature is made manifest… when a person can give of themselves even to the one who hates them.
This is where it is important to draw the distinction between philia and agapé… philia is what we feel for friends and family. It is impossible and impractical to feel philia toward the enemy, not because of reciprocated ill-will, but because of the nature of philia itself. Philia implies fellowship, mutual love and respect, and an intimate relationship. Agapé is not only different from philia in this regard, it is much greater… because it can be given to both friend and enemy alike.
In regards to the “practical” whys and wherefores in loving our enemy, we might be able to perceive conceptually why this would be spiritually beneficial. For one thing, returning hate for hate only causes to multiply it, in much the same way that Satan cannot be driven out by Satan. You can’t drive out darkness in a night already devoid of stars by making it even darker, only light can do that. The ultimate ends of hate are diametrically opposed to those of love. Love seeks to build, to heal, to repair, to reconcile. Hatred seeks to destroy, to damage, to obscure, and to drive apart. The ends of hatred are annihilation and detachment, and that would only plunge humanity further into annihilation if that were to happen. Jesus is aware of the stringent factors involved in loving one’s enemies, and He is as much aware of the gaping need to do so. That’s the physical reason why the love for enemies is an imperative course of action. What, however, of the spiritual reasons? The conclusion, the defining point of this entire passage, is given in verse 48: “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In reading this, we must rid our minds of modern conceptions of “perfection.” We think of this term as meaning “without flaw,” and though we may debate about what exactly this means, we can all be virtually unanimous in saying that we believe God to be perfect, or the embodiment of perfection. In this verse, however, Jesus sees the state of being perfect as something which is held by God, and simultaneously achievable by the human grasp. What He is talking about, then, is not that human beings can become exactly like God, but there is something in the nature of God that humans can hold in common with Him. And what might this be, in the context of what Jesus has been talking about up to this point? What He is saying, quite plainly, is that God Himself has this same agape love. We are to love all humanity because God loves all humanity as well. The verse might as well say “You must love your enemies as well as your neighbours, because God loves them both.” Believe it or not, there are some people in this world who will tell you that God loves only those who love Him back, that He has exclusive care for Christians and either apathy or contempt for everyone else. Don’t you believe it. God loves all humanity impartially, with this same agape love. It’s because of this agape love that God gave His only Son to die upon the cross as the atonement for humanity’s sin, which was where the sacrificial component of this type of love came in for the Almighty God.
This is the ultimate end of agapé… it is so that we “may be children of our Father who is in Heaven.” The altruism which a follower of God is expected to feel for all humanity makes the follower more like his God with each stage of growth. The more we love, the more we are awakened to our spiritual nature. Because God loves humanity with impartiality and agapé, so we in turn when we show this same love draw nearer to God Himself. The paradox is, agapé comes from God and ends with Him. Apart from His power, the objective universal altruism of which we speak is not only unattainable, but it has no real purpose to it. This is why the one who is unacquainted with the love of God will find it extremely difficult if not impossible to love neighbour and enemy alike.
Therefore, one must be a believer in order for agapé to have hope of being achieved. I say hoped, because unfortunately many people who profess the Christian faith do not seem to have a clear understanding of agapé or how it is necessary in such a spiritual walk. It is not because the unbeliver is inferior or a less capable person than the one who believes… it is because if one does not surrender to the power of God, agape is unachievable as it finds its source from such power. Universal altruism is something counter-intuitive to the needs of humanity. In our most primitive state of being, we had the instinct to fend only for ourselves and our personal survival… as we moved into the next stage, humanity founded civilisation and we learned not only to fend for ourselves, but also our loved ones; friends, family, and those with whom we felt affinity and passion. Agape is the extension of this familiar love into an objective state… obviously it is not possible for me to love the 6 billion other people on this planet with the same vehemence I love my parents and friends…. but that is philia and cannot always apply. Agapé means I view the humanity of those other people in the same vain I view the humanity of my parents and friends… each one made in the image of God, each one fallen, each one equally redeemable. Agapé is the goal for me to view all my fellow man in the same way I perceive God to view them. This love has its source from relationship with God, and relationship with God is also its purpose. It is as if by agapé one loses themselves in the infinite depth of being, whereby they realise their place in the holistic structure of God, humanity, and existence itself.