In Leif Enger’s novel Peace Like a River, Jeremiah Land is a single father of three working as a janitor at a local school. He’s also a man of deep, sometimes miraculous, faith. Throughout the book, his faith is often tested.
Jeremiah’s school is run by Chester Holden, a mean-spirited superintendent with a skin condition. Despite Jeremiah’s excellent work ethic—mopping up a sewage spill without complaint, picking up broken bottles the superintendent smashed—Holden wants him gone. One day, in front of all the students, he accuses Jeremiah of drunkenness and fires him. It’s a humiliating scene.
How does Jeremiah respond? He could threaten legal action for unfair dismissal or make accusations of his own. He could slink away, accepting the injustice. Think for a moment what you might do.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus says, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27–28). These challenging words aren’t meant to excuse evil or stop justice from being pursued. Instead, they call us to imitate God (v. 36) by asking a profound question: How can I help my enemy become all God wants him or her to be?
Jeremiah looks at Holden for a moment, then reaches up and touches his face. Holden steps back defensively, then feels his chin and cheeks in wonder. His scarred skin has been healed.
An enemy touched by grace.
What would your first reaction be in Jeremiah’s situation? How can you help a difficult person move closer to God’s purposes for them?
Christ’s words here echo His revolutionary teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5–7, especially 5:38–48). Some Bible scholars say both accounts refer to the same event, but others point to key differences. For instance, Luke specifically says that Jesus “went down with them and stood on a level place” (6:17). Matthew says He “went up on a mountainside and sat down” (5:1). Matthew lists eight beatitudes (vv. 2–12); Luke provides only four and in a somewhat different order (6:20–23). Luke also records a different style, reporting that Jesus said, “Blessed are you” instead of Matthew’s “blessed are those.” Importantly, the substance of Christ’s message in both accounts is the same: God’s love goes far beyond any legal requirement of what’s just and fair. Jesus is teaching us to emulate that extreme love.