Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In one sense, loving your neighbor is a simple, practical guide to good conduct. But it is also a truth we have to embrace and choose to follow. In that sense, it is a test of faith.
Matthew 5:17-20 is the introduction to the second major section of this sermon. Jesus wants his disciples to avoid the kind of law keeping that the Pharisees practice: holding to the letter of the law while avoiding the genuine demands of the law. He gives examples to explain how our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:43-48
- Leviticus 19:17-18 teaches that you shall love your neighbor. The Pharisees debated who qualified as “neighbor.”
- The word “neighbor” (Leviticus 19:17) is parallel with “your own people” (Leviticus 19:18), clearly teaching that you are to love your fellow Israelites.
- Leviticus 19:33-34 makes clear you must also love the foreigners who live among you.
- At the time of Jesus “who is my neighbor” was a subject of debate (Luke 10:25-29).
- The Pharisees could understand Leviticus as they must love every person in their community both Jew and Gentile.
Hate your enemy?
Where would the Pharisees get the idea that it’s okay to hate your enemy?
NOTE: Many people throughout church history have struggled with the passages below. I offer them as examples of how the Pharisees could conclude from the Old Testament that it is okay to hate your enemies. We’re not going to try to unpack them in this podcast. We’re addressing the question where could the Pharisees get the idea that it’s okay to hate your enemies.
- Deuteronomy 7:1-2: God requires the Israelites who are about to enter the promised land to utterly wipe out the nations currently living there. He tells them to make no covenant and show no mercy.
- Deuteronomy 23:3-8: Moses tells the Israelites that they are never to forgive the Ammonites or Moabites because of the way these two nations treated the Israelites while they were wandering in the dessert.
- Psalm 37:1-9: The Psalmists calls on God to harshly judge those who brought about the exile.
- Psalm 139:19-22: David explicitly speaks of hating God’s enemies.
How are we to resolve the tension between love your fellow countrymen and strangers in your land and the times when God called Israel to judge their enemies?
- One way to resolve the tension is the way the Pharisees resolved it. They divided people into two categories: my countrymen who are my neighbors whom we are called to love; and everyone else who are enemies of God and whom we are called to hate.
- Paul suggests a better option (Romans 12:17-21). Romans 12:19 says never avenge yourselves but leave it to the wrath of God, for the Lord says vengeance is mine.
- God will act to avenge His people and justly condemn His enemies at the proper time and place.
- As individuals, we are not called to visit God’s judgment on others. We are called to live by the principle “love my neighbor as myself.”
- All the Old Testament examples above demonstrate the principle that God has a right to judge His enemies and He will ultimately judge them. But in each case, judgment belongs to God. When God’s people act in judgment, they do so only at God’s specific command.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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.” – Matthew 5:43-45
- God postpones judgment. In the meantime, God gives the necessities of life to both those who love Him and those who Hate him.
- If God chooses to be gracious to His enemies, we who follow Him ought to follow His example.
- We are to be gracious to those who hate us. It’s not our job to execute judgment.
- By choosing to be gracious as God is gracious, we are like our Father in heaven.
46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:45-48
- “Reward” in this context is the desired outcome. The Pharisees seek God’s approval; that is their reward.
- The Pharisees describe righteousness in terms of something even those they consider sinful failures can do. Why would God consider you Pharisees blameless because you do what every single person does naturally?
- I take Matthew 5:48 as a summary of this subsection only. I understand this word “perfect” (Matthew 5:48) to have the sense of complete, mature or full: Therefore, your love should be complete, not only for your friends but also for your enemies, just like your heavenly father’s love is complete.
- Compare with Luke 6:35-36 and Romans 13:8-10.
You have heard the Pharisees teach that you are righteous if you love your neighbor and your fellow countrymen, and hate your enemies. But I say to you, don’t only love those who love you, love your enemy as well. Pray for those who seek your harm. Follow God’s example. God sends the sun and rain on both His people but His enemies. It doesn’t make sense that God would consider you blameless you for loving your friends and hating your enemies. That’s the way everyone acts. Therefore, your love should be complete, not only loving your friends but also loving your enemies, just like your heavenly father’s love is complete.