Scripture: “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 do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, 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.” Matthew 5:43-48 ESV
Observation: The above passage is the last of the six antitheses passages that transform the Levitical law from mere outward behavior to the heart (authenticity of character). While Leviticus 19:18 carries a similar theme of loving your neighbor, no Old Testament Scriptures implore Israel to hate their enemies. What Jesus may have had in mind is a teaching of a contemporary sect, the Qumran covenanters, who commanded love within their fellowship and hatred toward outsiders (1QS 1:4, 10; 2:4–9; 1QM 4:1–2; 15:6; 1QH 5:4). Regardless, the biblical authors repeatedly communicated God’s hatred of evil. And David went as far as to say that Yahweh hates all evildoers: “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers” (Psalm 5:4-5 ESV). So this saying to “hate your enemies” likely persisted in Jewish thought based on God’s position toward evil and its perpetrators.
Jesus then adds a promise: when we love our enemies, we verify our relationship as children of God (v.45a). As theologian Michael Wilkins contends, our spiritual “family relationship includes the obligation to act like a son or daughter, which means loving as the Father loves” (NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, p. 253). Jesus then follows with two examples of God’s loving “common grace” given to all people: sunshine and rain (v.45b)—the two most essential elements to grow food and flourish.
Next, Christ reminds his audience that while there is an innate desire in all of society (believers and unbelievers) to look after our kin and friends, reaching out to outsiders—stepping outside our comfort zone—yields a greater reward in God’s economy (vv.46-47).
Lastly, he urges his audience to pursue perfection. While striving for perfection here and now may seem contradictory to Jesus’ Gospel of Grace, as Wilkins notes, “perfect” in the future tense and the indicative mood implies an “emphatic goal that is to shape the disciples’ entire life” (p.253).
Takeaway: Indeed, as “love” is the focus of this passage, one of our goals as followers of Jesus should be to pursue loving even our enemies with his unsullied love that flows through us. Easier said than done? Absolutely! So how do we go about doing it? The Greek word teleios, translated as “perfect” in our text, appears in its Hebrew form (tamim) in Deuteronomy 18:13, “You shall be blameless [prefect] before the Lord your God” (ESV). Wilkins argues that “perfect” connotes wholeness or completeness. In the context of this passage and other uses in the New Testament, it carries the same meaning and points to spiritual maturity—a worthy goal for any disciple of Christ. And there is no better stepping stone than loving our enemies, beginnings with acts of kindness. Indeed, Paul exhorts the Roman church to overcome evil with good deeds (Romans 12:21).
So how do we move beyond our hurt and instead love our enemies? We don’t outside the sanctifying work of our Holy Spirit, who, over our lifetime, incrementally matures us into the image of God. He exposes the repressed thoughts and feelings of our hearts (selfishness, fears, anger, and roots of bitterness). He then shines Christ’s light of truth and grace into these dark recesses of our souls and imparts a deeper understanding of his grace. It is a process that entails counting the cost, forgiving, and seeking to get the best of our enemies. And while not all will be receptive to our overtures of godly love and kindness, there will be some who discover the joy of our salvation.
Finally, when we love our enemies, God willing, we turn them into allies. As Paul reminds the church, God turned us, his enemies, into friends by reconciling our sins through the sacrifice of his Son (Romans 5:10). The same applies to us as Christ’s ambassadors. A story from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency illustrates this point. Lincoln sacrificially loved his enemies when he appointed three political opponents (William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates) to cabinet positions. Persevering their initial contentious behavior with loving patience and kindness, he eventually won them over as allies to help him guide our nation through a civil war and the emancipation of slavery. And when we do the same, we might also see a transformation that turns God’s enemies into his and our allies.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who perfectly loved us when we were still his enemies. Would you please help us to pay it forward and love our enemies with your sacrificial love that turns enemies into allies? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling