June 21 – Matthew 5:43-48

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Do a quick Google and you’ll discover that, “you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” occurs only once in the Bible, that single occurrence being right here in Matthew 5. Though Jesus tells his audience, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,'” that phrase isn’t anywhere in the Old Testament. So what exactly is Jesus correcting here?

This is how we know that Jesus’ six “you have heard it said” statements aren’t meant to be corrections of the Old Testament. Which, if they were, it would introduce a serious complication in how we relate to the OT. Instead, Jesus is correcting either his audience’s faulty interpretation of the law or their failure to apply the law to their inward thoughts and feelings. In this case it’s the former; apparently Jesus’ audience had been taught by some persons, perhaps Pharisees or rabbis or others, that God’s command to his people was to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Perhaps hating one’s enemy was compiled from the psalms, where David often proclaims to God that he hates God’s enemies, while ignoring things like Exodus 23:4, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again.” No where do we find the command to hate one’s enemies coming from God. In fact, according to Jesus this fake command runs exactly opposite to God’s desires for his people.

Rather than hate your enemies, or ignore them, or tolerate them while trash talking them to your friends, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for their wellbeing. We Christians have done a pretty good job of skirting the reality of that command. At various points in history Christians have resorted to all manner of evil against their enemies (and neighbors, might we add). Nowadays we’re maybe more inclined to cut off contact with someone rather than commit atrocities against them. Our M.O. is to break ties, avoid, and move on. If we think of them it’s with distaste, so we try not to do so.

But Jesus would challenge us on this point too. You can’t avoid thinking about someone if Jesus wants you to pray for them, and when you think about them, the emotion that Jesus wants coming out of your heart towards that person is love. Jesus truly wants us to love anyone we might label enemy. And don’t miss that the command to love your enemy stands beside the command to love your neighbor (read the Good Samaritan and the difference between the two dissolves). So between these two ends of the human spectrum, who then are we not called to love? They might not be a full blown nemesis, but that awkward coworker, that bully who made fun of you in middle school, that neighbor who talks endlessly about things you don’t care about; Jesus wants you to love that person too.

Now, for more serious cases of enmity we may worry, “What if I love them and they keep doing _____ to me?” Or “Wouldn’t me loving them just seem like I support what they do?” But these fears betray a thin view of love, as if love can’t simultaneously pursue and correct, or enjoy another’s presence while disagreeing with their beliefs, or be present for someone without submitting to their abuse. Thinking back to last week, all of this elaborating on “love your enemy” has to stand alongside the cross of Christ and the complex, empathetic, corrective, transformative, unconditional love of God. If we resist Jesus’ command to love our enemy, we should remember that Jesus loved us while we were yet his enemies.

Not surprisingly, Jesus makes this same argument in the passage. He tells us to love our enemies so that we’ll be sons of God (as an aside, a holistic read of the Bible will reveal that here Jesus is saying those who are saved will behave this way, not those who behave this way will be saved). That phrase is meant to indicate similarities; we love our enemies to resemble our Father, who does the same. Doesn’t God bless the wicked with sun and rain and food? How then could you excuse loving your enemy (or your awkward coworker) less than God does?

Finally, we should also take Jesus’ command here in its context. In the SOTM he’s talking to a Jewish audience, an oppressed people group governed against their will by the Roman Empire. “Pray for those who persecute you” wasn’t a hypothetical for them, so he didn’t give this command lightly. When the Roman tax collector nickel and dimed them, when soldiers seized their property, when Herod made a mockery of their religion, Jesus wanted them to pray for those oppressors. Undoubtedly the content of that prayer could be, “May they repent, may they undo what was done, may they be utterly changed by your love, O God.” If Jesus could tell this audience to love their enemies, his command should ring in our ears. We should honestly stop and ask ourselves, who have we failed to love? How would God call us to repent of this, do what was left undone, and be utterly changed by his love?

Questions for Discussion

•  Would someone read Matthew 5:43-48 for us?

•  What stands out to you from this passage?

•  Why do you think Jesus tells us to love our enemies?

•  How would you describe this love that Jesus is talking about?

•  As we talk about loving those we aren’t inclined to, who comes to mind for you? What’s a step you could take towards loving them like Jesus loves you?