Matthew 5:43-48

In my posting of the briefs on prayer that I did last semester, somehow I managed to miss the final one. I suspect it had something to do with the madness that comes around finals time. So here it is, only a month or so late…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

These verses come in the context of what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is part of a series of sections that begin with Jesus saying “You have heard it was said… but I say to you…” In these sections, it appears that Jesus is attempting to revise his listeners understanding of certain issues, including that of loving your enemies.

The Jewish New Testament Commentary points out that nowhere in the Law does it say to hate your enemies, though it does specifically say to love your neighbors (Leviticus 19:18). It may be that the commendation of hating your enemies was a misinterpretation of the Law, taking it too far. The IVP Bible Background Dictionary says that hating God’s enemies was considered a pious thing, though the Law did not explicitly teach hatred for one’s own enemies. Some Jewish groups, such as the Essenes, did emphasize hatred for those outside the covenant. It’s important to note that loving one’s enemies has nothing to do with one’s feelings toward them, but deals with wanting good for them, doing good for them, and praying for them (Jewish NT Commentary). “Praying for one’s persecutors (except that God would strike them dead!) had not generally characterized even the most pious in the Old Testament” (IVP Bible Background NT).

In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay calls this section the most “concentrated expression of the Christian ethic of personal relations.” He says that if we are required to live this out in our daily lives, we must understand what it means to love our enemies. This love that Jesus is speaking of is agape love; this is a love that is not a feeling of the heart that we cannot help, but is a determination of the mind where we have goodwill toward others that is not defeated by anything, even what that person may do to us. This does not mean that we let people get away with anything. What it means is that even when we have to punish someone (i.e. time in prison for murder, etc.), our motivation is not revenge. Barclay also points out that this commandment to love is not only passive, but is also active. We are not just to have determined goodwill toward others, but are told to pray for them. Why pray for them? Because it changes us. We cannot retain life-damaging bitterness when we pray for someone. In his commentary on Matthew, Tom Wright calls this a new kind of justice, one that creates, heals and restores. It is infinitely better to reflect the patient love of God than to seek our own vengeance.

Another question that arises is why we are to have this kind of love. The answer is simple: because it makes us more like God, and in all things we are to strive to imitate him (Barclay). Here is where the call to be perfect enters in. Barclay says that the Greek idea of perfection is about function; something is perfect if it fulfills the purpose for which it was made. Therefore a man is perfect if he achieves the purpose for which he was made, and man was created in the image of God. To be perfected, we must be like God, and that includes determined love for our enemies. Wright agrees that we are told to watch what our heavenly father does and to imitate him. God loves – indeed, God is love – and we are called to act out that love in our own lives toward all, including our enemies. An anonymous author in an incomplete homily on Matthew said, “… he who loves his enemy loves not for his own sake [as he would friends] but on account of God” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture). Chrysostom said, “… the Lord wishes us to overcome the common law of human love by the law of gospel love, so that we may show the affection of our love not only toward those who love us but even toward our enemies… Thus we may imitate the example of true piety and our Father’s goodness.”

Even today this is not an easy message to hear or read. When we have been harmed, our first temptation is vengeance, bitterness, and anger. Yet even secular psychologists tell us that this inner bitterness and anger harms us more than it harms our enemy. But we Christians are called not only to release that bitterness and anger, but to love with a determined love that voluntarily offers goodwill and unhesitatingly prays for our enemies. Jesus did not call us to an easy life or to simple actions, but he does not ask us to do what he has not already done himself. How many people could speak words of forgiveness to those who crucified them? Not many, I would say. We are called to be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. This perfection in love, where we release bitterness and offer agape love, is one that takes time and effort. It is not easy, but it is part of our calling as Christians. May each of us continue to reach for that perfection in love as we strive to be in the image of God.

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