August 23, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV)
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus tells us to love our neighbor/enemy because we are made in the image of God. Why else might Jesus have told us to do so?
I had two good friends who died of Alzheimer’s disease. One developed early-onset Alzheimer’s in his fifties. Another developed the disease much later in life. In each case, their families and friends experienced the agony of what some have called “the long goodbye,” even though there was little about it that was good. Each suffered not only the loss of their memories and the stories of their lives but, as a consequence, the loss of their identities. For my latter friend, who was a kind and gentle man for much of his life, the result was that he became uncontrollably violent and abusive. It was terrible to watch, much less to experience. No wonder Alzheimer’s is one of the most dreaded diseases of our age.
Alzheimer’s reminds us of the importance of memory and story in shaping our identities. What we remember and the stories that those memories shape in us profoundly influence who we are and who we will become. In other words, memories and stories are not just about the past. They are about how we see and choose to live in the present and the future. That’s why biblical revelation consists primarily of stories rather than merely of principles or commands. That’s also why many of the commands in the Bible are about remembering those stories and learning to have our lives be shaped by them.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount reminds us of who we are and whose we are. As I suggested last month, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor/enemy because we are made in the image of God. We are God’s children and are to bear God’s family likeness. Even though it may be exceptionally difficult and costly to do so, we are to love our neighbor/enemy—because that’s what God does.
But that’s not the only reason.
Another reason we are to love our neighbor/enemy is that they too are made in the image of God. How we treat the image of God is how we treat God. From the beginning, God places a high value on human life and a high premium on how we treat other human beings. One of the reasons for that is that humanity represents God in and to the world, much like the vocation of an ambassador. In ancient times as in modern times, ambassadors were given the respect and honor due to the government they represent. Conversely, disrespect and ill-treatment of an ambassador was (and is) viewed as an affront to their government, with all the consequences that entails. This helps us understand Jesus’ words: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40) and, negatively, “Whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).
Of course, God’s ambassadors and image-bearers don’t always look the part. In that way too, they are like Jesus. Jesus’ humble human origin and way of life contrasted with ancient (and modern) expectations of what it means to be a representative of a powerful and prestigious government. Therefore, Jesus reminds us that how we treat those on the margin of society reflects what we think of God. As Jesus himself said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
What makes this even harder and more complicated is that human beings are fallen creatures. And that means God’s image and likeness that we encounter in others will be compromised and distorted. So, not only is God’s image sometimes hard to recognize, but that very image can be twisted into something grotesque. Nevertheless, we are called to love them the way God loves them. Particularly as followers of Jesus, we are called to remember that redemption and restoration are always a possibility. That’s why Jesus came and what his death, life, and resurrection, and the coming of the Spirit, make possible.
If Alzheimer’s is the dreaded physical disease of our generation, I believe our generation also suffers from its spiritual analog. We are susceptible to losing the memories and stories that are intended to form our identity as human beings and as a human community. Thankfully, the spiritual equivalent of Alzheimer’s has a known cure. We need to recover the memories and stories that remind us again of who God is and what God is like, and therefore who we are and what we are to be like. Today’s text challenges any generation, particularly our own where enemies are legion and hated with a vitriol that is unmatched in recent memory. Into that deep darkness, Jesus speaks a word that brings bright light and hope: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
How might you see the image and likeness of God in those whom you would either not notice or view as being an enemy?
Do an intentional act of kindness for someone on the margins of your work, or for someone that you consider to be a rival or an enemy.
God our Father,
We are grateful that you have created all human beings, including us, in your image and likeness.
Forgive us for dismissing or diminishing that image or likeness in others. And when we see distortions of your image and likeness in others, helps us to love them wisely.
We ask for your glory and for the common good.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Love Your Enemies.
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During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
Click here to view Uli’s profile.