Imagine how different Iraq, Gaza and Ukraine would be now if people took Jesus words seriously and loved their enemies. Imagine how different our own country would be if people loved their enemies. Imagine how different our news bulletins would be.
In Matthew 5, there are six examples of radical righteousness and today we come to number six. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus said that He had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. Not even the tiniest detail of the Law will disappear.
Matt 5:20 I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
The previous examples have dealt with anger, lust, marriage, honesty, and responding to being hurt – all very every-day issues. And they are all about relationships. Relationships are hugely important to God. The gospel is about relationship. It is about reconciliation, and so the outworking of the gospel impacts on our relationships.
Having looked at those five examples we now know the pattern. Jesus quoted something that the people had been taught; “You have heard that it was said”. Then He said, “But I tell you…” and He explained the true intent of the Law. That Pharisees and the teachers of the Law had often fudged it; had wriggled around it; had come up with some tricky interpretation that allowed them to actually do the opposite of what God intended. Jesus took it right back to the original intention – which was much more radical; much more demanding. Jesus talked about the greater righteousness that He requires of His followers.
One commentator says, “It can be concluded therefore from this section that the moral law of the Old Testament is recognised by Jesus as possessing divine authority, but that as Messiah, He claims authority to supplement it, to draw out principles that lie latent within it, and to disclaim the false deductions that had been made from it. This is what He seems to have meant when He said I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil (v.7).” (Tasker, p.67)
Todays’ example is exactly the same. The Pharisees had twisted God’s Law. They taught “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy” based on…
Lev 19:18 Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.
The fact that love is commanded instead of revenge or bearing a grudge, shows us that this verse is using “neighbour” to describe someone who has hurt you. Your neighbour is (at least temporarily) your enemy and the Old Testament teaches love instead of revenge.
But the Pharisees of Jesus’ day misquoted it, distorting it in a number of ways. Notice that they missed out “as yourself”. That defines how much we are to love others – as much as we love ourselves. But they missed that out and therefore limited the magnitude of the love.
They also limited the extent of the love. They taught that Jews only had to love their fellow Jews. True, the Leviticus verse talked about “anyone among your own people” but actually the Old Testament teaches that even the foreigner living among them was to be seen as one of their own people. Even the Old Testament taught love for all people but the Pharisees limited it. “Neighbours” means your fellow Jew.
Thirdly, they added something: hate your enemies. They reasoned that if you had to love only your friends, then you were allowed to hate your enemies. Not only were you allowed to, you were instructed to hate your enemies. The Old Testament never says such an awful thing. That was their invention.
Jesus stood against that and turned it completely on its head. “It is not hate your enemies. I tell you, love your enemies.” Again, Jesus asks for that much greater, much deeper righteousness.
He said, “Even the tax collectors love those who love them.” The tax collectors were probably the worst people the disciples could imagine. But even they love those who love them. What reward do you expect for doing what tax collectors do? No, no, no, rewards are given to those who go much further.” Jesus’ followers are to be exceptionally righteous; extraordinarily righteous – not just like everyone else.
Even pagans – those who do not know God or who worship false gods – even they greet their own people. There is no great merit in that. Jesus’ followers are to go way beyond that. Just being like pagans is not good enough for Christians. Christians are to be very, very different – to model a radical righteousness.
How different are Christians to be? Christian are to be like God. Jesus said that twice in this example. At the end He said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
What? Perfect! Is He serious? How can we be perfect, like God?
Because it is difficult, scholars differ on what that means. Some say that “perfect” is a bad translation. The word translated here “perfect” (teleios) can also mean “whole” or “complete”. So one suggestion is that Jesus was saying, “Love completely. Love everybody just like God does.”
That is possible. That would fit in with the context very well. Love everybody, just like God does. The parallel passage in Luke 6 finishes by saying, “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”
Others say, on the basis of this verse, that it is possible for us to achieve perfection – which is a bit depressing for the rest of us!
Others will say, “No, it is not possible to be perfect this side of heaven but our aim should be to be like God. We should never settle for mediocre Christianity but always seek to be more and more like God.
In verse 45 Jesus had said that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us that we may be children of our Father in heaven. What God is like we are to be like as His children. We are to show ourselves to be children of this God.
So what is God like? Generous to all. He causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on the evil and the good alike. Evil people receive God’s gifts just the same way that good people do. The unrighteous get to enjoy the beauty and the goodness of creation. God doesn’t hold back these things, because He loves all people – even those who reject Him and ignore Him and disobey Him. Even to His enemies God gives generously. This is referred to as God’s common grace – God’s grace that is extended to everyone. It is not His saving grace. God gives His saving grace to those who have faith in Jesus but He loves everybody and gives them good things generously.
Jesus tells us to be like God; be children of your Father: display the family likeness: love your enemies.
There are perhaps only two difficult things in this passage: understanding it and doing it. It is difficult to understand that bit about being perfect but actually the rest is pretty easy to understand.
The only real difficulty then is doing it. How do we love the people who hate us? How do we love those who hurt us and cause us grief?
Jesus gives two practical actions: love them and pray for them. In Luke’s version of this sermon there are four practical actions. Let’s look at all four.
- love your enemies
- do good to those who hate you
- bless those who curse you
- pray for those who mistreat you.
We will have enemies. Jesus had enemies. God has enemies. Jesus promised that His followers would have enemies. Some people become angry and hurtful. But the point is: How do we treat them? To make this practical let’s identify our enemies and consider how we might do what Jesus says. Do you have any enemies? Do you have people in your life who want to see you harmed? Do you have people you try to avoid because you don’t want to have to talk to them or acknowledge them. Who are those people? Think of their names, then think about how you could obey Jesus.
Our feelings might be hurt. We might have no affection for them but love is not a feeling; it is a choice. We can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, choose to love. It is not natural; it is supernatural. Again, we might not have feelings of affection but we can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, choose to always desire the best for them. If we want the best for them, that will lead to the other things Jesus instructed.
Do good for them. We might have to do it through gritted teeth. It might go against our inclination but God says to do it and doing it might be a break-through for us. Do you know of something your enemy needs? Meet that need. Surprise him/her with a gift, or a card of appreciation. There could be a long list of ideas of good we could do to them.
Abraham Lincoln had an arch enemy called Edwin Stanton. Stanton hated Lincoln and used every ounce of his energy to degrade him in the public eye, even attacking his physical appearance. When Lincoln was elected President, he was looking for someone to fill the vital post of Secretary of War. He chose Stanton, knowing all that he had said and done, and in spite of the advice of those close to him, because he was the best mad for the job. When Lincoln was assassinated, many men spoke laudable words about him. But the words of Stanton were the most moving. He used the immortal phrase ‘He now belongs to the Ages’, and referred to Lincoln as one of the greatest men who ever lived. The power of Lincoln’s grace and kindness had transformed Stanton from an enemy into a friend. (Quoted from Gumbel, The Jesus Lifestyle, p.134)
In fact, Lincoln is quoted as saying, “I destroy my enemies but turning them into my friends.”
“Bless” here means to speak well of them. Imagine the impact when you speak well of an enemy in that person’s presence. That would probably shock them and maybe open up possibilities for reconciliation. But just as importantly, we should speak well of them when they aren’t present.
A paraphrase of 1 Peter 3:9 says, “Never retaliate when people say unkind things about you. Pay them back with a blessing… and God will bless you.
Fourthly, Jesus said, “Pray for those who mistreat you.” Maybe their actions are still causing you grief but Jesus asks us to make that effort to pray for them. Pray that God will bless them.
Jesus prayed for His executioners even as they drove the nails through His hands.
We cannot pray consistently for someone and continue to hate him. As we pray, we begin to see him differently – to see a human being who also needs to know God’s grace.
Jesus calls us to a level of righteousness that is far above the normal. He asks us to do things that might go against the grain, when our old self still wants to hate or to seek revenge. But God also honours those who honour Him. If we do what He asks, He might use that to do something miraculous.
Let us trust Jesus – trust that He knows what He is talking about – trust that He wants to see miracles happen in people’s lives and trust that, if we will be obedient, He will use us. What might happen if we were to live in the radical way that Jesus taught but also demonstrated? Love like God does.