“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy’:
But I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).
Jesus had already said many difficult, challenging things. He had only been warming up!
Matthew 5:1-48 recounts the beginning of what is popularly called Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” in which Jesus set forth a protracted discussion of the ethics of the Kingdom. After overthrowing commonly held expectations about who was fortunate, or blessed (Matthew 5:3-12), Jesus established that He came to fulfill, and not abolish the Law, but to enter the Kingdom one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20). In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus further explicated the point with a series of contrasting statements, first establishing “what had been said” in the Law, both in terms of what was explicitly written and how it was understood and practiced in terms of righteousness, but then turning by establishing what “I say unto you,” ultimately a more exacting and rigorous standard. The Law said to not murder; Jesus exhorted His followers to not even hate, pursuing reconciliation (Matthew 5:21-26). The Law said to not commit adultery; Jesus expected people to not even lust in their heart, turning from temptation (Matthew 5:27-30). The Law granted reasons for divorce; Jesus limited them to sexually deviant behavior on the part of the spouse being put away (Matthew 5:31-33). The Law made provision for oaths; Jesus told His followers to not swear at all (Matthew 5:33-37). The Law enshrined the lex talionis as a means of exacting appropriate recompense for injury; Jesus then said to not resist the one who is evil, suffer the loss and indignity, and prove willing to go further (Matthew 5:38-42). This leads to the final contrast as expressed in Matthew 5:43-48.
The Law explicitly declared for the Israelites to love their neighbor as themselves in Leviticus 19:18. The Law nowhere explicitly states that Israelites were to “hate their enemy”; this has led many expositors to suggest that this is a Pharisaical addition condemned by Jesus and without merit. So far everything Jesus declared “had been said of old” came directly from the Law or paraphrased an idea that was assuredly in the Law; to turn to a Pharisaical invention without mentioning it would seem strange at this point. “You shall hate your enemy,” especially in terms of loving one’s enemy less, is not an unreasonable interpretation of many elements of the Law of Moses. YHWH explicitly excluded the Ammonites and Moabites from His assembly (Deuteronomy 23:2-3); the Israelites were to entirely eliminate and destroy the seven nations in Canaan (Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 5). After at least four hundred years after the original offense YHWH made sure that Saul struck Amalek for what they had done to the Israelites during their time in the Wilderness (1 Samuel 15:1-7; cf. Exodus 17:8-16). An exploration into the prophetic judgment oracles against neighboring nations, seen in Isaiah 13-24, Jeremiah 46-51, Amos 1-2, Obadiah, and Nahum, among others, makes plain how little love was lost among the Israelites and their neighbors, and how YHWH was going to judge those who had sought evil against Israel. We can also see what the Israelites do when they get a chance to overcome their enemies in Esther 8-9, and it leads to many, many deaths.
We can see “hate your enemy” at work throughout the Gospels in terms of how the Jewish people viewed and treated those of other nations. The lawyer’s attempt to justify himself in Luke 10:29 was not entirely out of turn; Israelites had no problem loving (at least most of) their fellow Israelites but had very little love for those of the nations, particularly Romans. John’s aside in John 4:9 is understated: Jews not only had no dealings with Samaritans but also despised them, and that gives the Parable of the Good Samaritan its power (Luke 10:26-37). Peter reminded Cornelius that it is unlawful for Jews to associate with Gentiles (Acts 10:28), and that was the accusation made against him the moment he returned to Jerusalem (Acts 11:2-3). Jews despised those of the nations, the Gentiles; the Gentiles returned the favor. And, as Peter’s declaration makes clear, Jews found plenty of justification for their position towards the Gentiles in the Law of Moses.
Jesus very deliberately overthrows the whole paradigm in His response in Matthew 5:44. He told His disciples to love and do good to their enemies and pray for their persecutors. Few concepts prove as counterintuitive and contrary to all natural inclination as this; we want to harm those who want to harm us, or at least keep them away. We want nothing good to come upon those who want to do evil to us. It can be physically challenging to even turn the tide so as to do what Jesus says, to do good to those who stand against you and everything you are.
Jesus is aware of that; such is why He appeals to the ultimate Authority. Why should Christians love their enemies, do good to them, and pray for their persecutors? So they can manifest how they are children of their Father in heaven (Matthew 5:45). God sends the sun to shine upon the evil and the good; rain falls on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Not only that, but loving those who love you and greeting only those who are your fellow people is not really that extraordinary, for tax collectors (universally hated and reviled as agents of the oppressors) and (those nasty) Gentiles do the same things. Thus, if you really want to be truly righteous, to have a form of righteousness greater than the average person, you need to be more like your heavenly Father and love even those who do not love you and greet those who would have nothing to do with you.
Jesus then concludes this series of contrasting statements, exemplifying the true nature of righteousness in the Kingdom, by declaring that His followers should be perfect as the Father is perfect. “Perfect” is the Greek teleios, “complete, perfect, brought to its end, mature.” If one exemplifies all these forms of righteousness he would prove mature and brought to the complete end of holiness, just as God is.
So much could be said about Jesus’ exposition in Matthew 5:43-48. Through what Jesus says we can see a level of common grace which God provides to all, something Paul will consider as well in Acts 14:16-17, 17:25-30. Jesus’ appeal to the “natural” love and greeting among even sinners is hard to square with any suggestion that humans, in their sinful depravity, are incapable of any good. There are no end to the arguments about Matthew 5:48 and the attainability of perfection, or whether that is even what Jesus is imagining or expecting, or perhaps is showing that all of this is what would be demanded in its exactitude if one attempts to depend on fulfillment of righteousness as the ground upon which one is able to stand before God (cf. Matthew 5:20).
The most important thing is how Jesus lived what He said in Matthew 5:43-48. Jesus came as the one sinless human in a sinful world; all people had turned aside to their own way; all were weak, ungodly, and sinful to some degree or another, and yet Jesus loved them and died for them (Romans 5:6-11). He prayed for Jerusalem while knowing He would be killed there (Matthew 23:37-39); He prayed for those who executed Him while in the very act (Luke 23:34). He visited Saul of Tarsus while he remained a persecutor, and Saul never forgot the greatness of Jesus’ mercy nor the depth of his own sinfulness (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Paul would become a most forceful expositor of the great power of what Jesus accomplished on the cross: He bore the enmity, He killed the hostility, and now Jew and Gentile were to be brought together into one body (Ephesians 2:11-18).
Jesus had no quarrel with loving one’s neighbor. The difficulty, of course, is that we humans see some people as our neighbor, but not everyone. Jesus points out that to God we are all neighbors; we all receive the beneficence of His abundant provision of the earth. God loves despite our unworthiness; we must love despite others’ unworthiness. God even loved those who actively worked against His purposes; what excuse do we have to do otherwise?
As Christians we are to be continually reminded that the only reason we stand before God is because while we were yet weak, ungodly, and enemies, God reconciled us to Himself through the death of Jesus of Nazareth (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-8). Thus we must love our enemy, just as God did, so that our enemy may become our brother. We must pray for those who persecute us so they may turn from the forces of darkness to which they are subject and join with us in serving the living God (Ephesians 6:12). God loves everyone and wants them to be saved (1 Timothy 4:1-4). If we would be called sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, should we not want the same, and live according to the pattern of our elder Brother Jesus who established the way (1 John 2:3-6)? May we love our enemies and do good to them, pray for those who persecute us, and demonstrate ourselves to be children of our heavenly Father to His glory!
Ethan R. Longhenry