“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.” – Matt. 5:43-48
As a young man, I, like most other young men, settled comfortably into a group of wonderful friends. Throughout high school, I met with my friends at church, on the weekends, and during school. One member of my particular friend-group, for reasons that still to this day baffle me, did not enjoy my company. Well, better said: he strongly, strongly disliked me. I was short, chubby, uncoordinated and had a high pitch voice in high school; he was lean, tall, athletic and had a normal-pitch voice – so maybe he didn’t like me because I was the inverse of him. He was extremely competitive, and I simply couldn’t compete – often we would get paired up for games in youth group (boys vs. girls), and he would groan every time I failed to come through for the guys. He was popular at church and school and I was awkward and kind of obnoxious.
When I first started hanging out with my friends, he quickly (and very loudly) made it known that he did not approve of me being brought into the herd. For the period of about a year, he badgered me, mocked me, and reminded me that he could squash my chubby face if he wanted to. Once, during a game of Sorry, our group of friends managed to bump him back to the beginning position so many times that he purple-face screamed, flipped the board game over, and stomped out, screaming, “THIS IS SO STUPID!” the whole way out. This successfully solidified him as a bonafide crazy-man in my mind.
Now, after spending a considerable amount of time with young people, I have found that my experience is not unique, and I have found that as you grow up things like that seem much sillier now. But it seems that most people know of one person in high school who made it really, really easy to hate. Loving them felt like trying to breath underwater. It is easy to love people who are like you, and who like you – not so much when they aren’t and don’t. But, as I look back over my interactions with this man, I am most disturbed by my own blindness to Christ’s famous words found in the Sermon on the Mount, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
Though I read that verse, was familiar with it, and had even memorized it – I never once put it into practice, or even contemplated putting it into practice, in regards to this young man. It feels like a bit of a stretch to label him my “enemy” or call his picking on me “persecution”, but in High School it certainly felt like that. I felt justified in my dislike of him because he was overtly rude to me. My heart was truly hardened against him. But Jesus’ words do not have qualifying asterisks floating above them, excusing you from the command if the enemy is a jerk. I never thought of what it would be like to love him. And for that, I feel a deep sense of regret. But how – how on earth do you do that? Jesus helps us with his explanation of natural love, his call to unnatural love, his revelation of supernatural love, and his own perfect love.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” (Matt. 5:43).
Interestingly, only half of what Jesus is quoting is found in the Bible. Jesus pulls from Lev. 19:18, which states, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” “Hating your enemy”, however, is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. What is Jesus doing? Renown New Testament scholar, D.A. Carson, notes that Jesus is actually citing a modern day perversion of the Levitical command. Much like today, where we hear that “God helps those who help themselves,” “ cleanliness is next to godliness,” and “We can have our best life now”, in Jesus’ time people read their own fabricated truisms into God’s Word. This is important to understand, because when Jesus overturns this principle, we can be comforted that He isn’t simply contradicting the Old Testament – rather, He is upholding it. This subtle cultural manipulation and addition of “love your neighbor”, however, kind of makes sense. If I should “love my neighbor”, then isn’t it safe to assume that the inverse is true?
This is, after all, what feels most natural, doesn’t it? It feels entirely natural to love those who love you, and withhold love from those who withhold it from you. This principle is so obvious that it needs nearly no explanation. If you go to the pound, looking for a dog to pick out, you probably are not going to take home the one that tries to bite your hand. If you discover that your coworker has been spreading lies about you at work, are you going to feel a desire to talk up his strong qualities to the boss? If you discover that for the past couple of years your spouse has been having an affair, is it going to feel natural to treat them with love and kindness? No, it wouldn’t – because we naturally love those who love us back.
However, though it feels natural, normal and safe to love those who love us, Jesus calls us to what is unnatural.
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matt. 5:44). Jesus, controversially, flips the entire world’s system of “love” on its head. The world tells me: you hurt me, I hurt you back; you hate me, I hate you back. Jesus tells me: you hurt me, I will pray for you; you hate me, I will love you. That doesn’t make any sense! When someone hurts us, it creates an inner anger and pain that feels like it will only be remedied by hating the one who hurt us, like a tension and pressure that must be vented. Christ commanding us to love our enemies feels like He is asking us to hold in a sneeze, or hold our hands in a flame.
Looking more closely at who precisely these “enemies” are doesn’t seem to alleviate the problem. Jesus uses several examples of enemies in this passage, highlighting “Gentiles” (vs. 47), “tax-collectors” (vs. 46), and the general group of those who would “persecute you” (vs. 44; 5:10). This shows that Jesus is calling us to love national enemies (Gentiles), moral enemies (tax-collectors), and religious enemies (those who persecute). Charles Quarles, New Testament scholar, explains, “The enemy is one who is diametrically opposed to all that the disciple believes, stands for, and holds precious: his faith, his moral convictions, and his Lord.”
For the most part, when we think of “enemies” we encounter on a regular basis, we think of people like our in-laws, annoying neighbors, or someone like my friend from high-school. But Jesus is calling us to love someone who is fundamentally different than we are, on almost every front. This is alarming. I struggled to love an overly competitive kid who believed almost all of the same things I believed – but Jesus has set the bar much, much higher.
But Jesus, ruthlessly, presses further. Directly following His command to love them, Jesus says that we must “pray” for these enemies. Jesus is pushing us towards genuine, heartfelt love, and condemning those who may try to merely show outward acts of love, alone. To pray for someone requires a humility and softness of heart towards them, seriously desiring their good. This is unnatural.
In Victor Hugo’s masterpiece ,Les Miserables, the main character, Jean Valjean begins in the story as a convicted thief (though he was only guilty of stealing a loaf of bread). Regardless of the severity of his crime, he is simply treated as a criminal after he is released on parole. No one will give him a bed to sleep on, and no one will give him a job. Eventually, Valjean comes across a monastery who is ran by a warm, generous bishop who takes Valjean in, feeds him, and treats him as an equal. But, frustrated and bitter by his lot, Valjean takes advantage of the bishops kindness, and in the middle of the night sneaks away with the majority of the church’s gold and silverware. The police quickly catch Valjean with the treasure, and drag him back up to the church, telling the bishop that Valjean’s story is that the bishop gave him the treasure as a gift. The bishop, who treated this ex-convict with love and hospitality, and has now been taken advantage of, would be completely justified in telling the police the truth, and shipping Valjean back to jail. However – he doesn’t do that. The bishop not only says that the treasure was indeed a gift, he runs back inside the church and finds two costly lampstands and gives them to Valjean, claiming that he forgot the most prized treasure to take with him. That is unnatural – that level of love, forgiveness and generosity is something that simply doesn’t make sense.
The question, though, is why on earth anyone would do that? If loving an enemy feels so remarkably unnatural, then why would we do it?
“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?” (Matt. 5:45-47).
Jesus ‘defense for why we should embark on the baffling conquest to love our enemies is simple: so we may be sons of God the Father. Jesus’ point here prompts two immediate questions. First, what makes me a son of God? Second, why does “loving my enemies” make me like our heavenly Father?
First, what makes me a son of God? Christ’s words here are puzzling. Is Jesus claiming that if I first am able to love my enemies, then I will be saved? Well, no. New Testament scholar, Charles Quarles, explains that Jesus is expressing what the characteristics of son were to be like, not presenting requirements necessary for receiving the title of son. If you could become a son of God by loving your enemy, then Jesus’ death on the cross seems a little unnecessary, doesn’t it? See, Jesus is describing what one looks like once they have been welcomed into the grace and mercy of the gospel: they love their enemies.
Second, why does “loving my enemies” make me like our heavenly Father? Jesus simply explains that the Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” In other words, though there are many people in the world who reject God and refuse to obey Him, and yet God still allows them to enjoy the common grace of God. God loves His enemies; therefore to love our enemies emulates a supernatural kind of love.
After the Bishop’s act of love in Les Miserables, Valjean is transformed, and surrenders his life to Christ. Throughout the rest of the story, he strives to live a life that emulates the same grace and love he received. But, all throughout the story, Inspector Javert has been dogging Valjean’s trail, desperate to throw him back into jail for violating his parole. On numerous occasions, Javert comes remarkably close to either capturing or killing Valjean, only to see Valjean escape away. But, near the end of the story, Javert is captured and tied up in a room, when Valjean walks in. Valjean could easily, and justifiably, kill the psychotic and unyielding Inspector. But Valjean remembers what it was like being dead-to-rights guilty before the one who could dish out his judgment, only to not receive it. So, Valjean leads Javert out of his imprisonment and sets him free. Javert, unable to comprehend why Valjean would do such a thing, swears to continue hunting down Valjean. Valjean humbly admits that he is aware of this, but cautions him to leave quickly or he will be caught. Javert, baffled, walks away – set free and protected by the one he has spent most of his life trying to kill. Javert, a man who has lived his entire life by the meticulous balancing of the law, experienced grace. He experienced a love that was not only unnatural, but was divine in its peculiarity. And it actually destroys him. He throws himself to his death, because he knows that he cannot continue his pursuit to kill Valjean because of the grace he, his enemy, has just shown him. “Grace” disrupts his entire mental system of self-righteous, and it breaks him permanently.
That’s what grace does to us. It either leads us to realize our own neediness and melts our hard hearts, or it offends us deeply and we reject it as below us. One thing it cannot do, however, is make us indifferent towards it.
Though we naturally love our own, and feel unnatural to love our enemies, God desires us to supernaturally love enemies and friends alike, in the same way He does. That is clear – but the question is how? How on earth are you going to be able to do that? Where can you get the power to overcome the fear, pain, and resentment we hold against our enemies, and love them?
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
If Jesus’ words haven’t yet shocked you, these ones certainly will. Jesus quite plainly says, “You must be perfect.” With that “therefore”, Jesus is probably summarizing the entirety of His teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, up to this point. Jesus has been giving us various ethical and spiritual teachings, and ties it up neatly with a concise “You should just be perfect.”
Well, don’t let the strangeness of that stop you from hearing what Jesus is saying. First off, we see that Jesus is not just saying that His teachings are good, helpful, or even better than most – He is claiming that they are in fact perfect. Jesus is not just a good spiritual counselor, He is God in the flesh, who has come to reveal the Father to us all. Second, we see that Jesus is claiming that you and I are intended to be perfect, like our God is perfect. We can experience a kind of shell-shock upon hearing Christ’s call to perfection, because (duh), nobody is perfect. But Jesus hints at the fact that that is not how it is supposed to be.
We were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and our God is perfect, therefore we were designed to be perfect. Sin, however, came in and splintered that perfect image, and has left us all remarkably imperfect. Sin is why we all look cross-eyed at Christ’s command to love our enemies and be perfect, like He is asking us to stop a charging locomotive with our bare hands.
But see, Jesus is the perfect man – He has no sin. That means that the life that Jesus lived is the type of life that we all should be living. And Jesus’ life was marked by loving His enemies, praying for them, and working for their good. We see this displayed supremely at the cross, at Calvary. The story of the gospel is God Himself, the perfect Being, coming down to us imperfect beings and dwelling with us, teaching us and loving us. But we didn’t want Him – we rejected Him. The Scriptures tell us that we are actually, and quite truly, God’s enemies (Rom. 5:10), and we proved it by killing Him.
But here is the secret magic that we didn’t know about: this was His plan all along. Jesus knew that if He came down to us rabble, we wouldn’t be able to live by His standards. We would never be able to measure up. And we would try and silence Him. But Christ, also knew that the only thing that could dislodge the venomous grip of sin on our hearts was His very own atoning death. In the Bible, since the outcome of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), the only thing that can pardon it is death, signified by blood (Heb. 9:22). So Jesus, allowed His enemies to fulfill their bloody plan, unaware that they were merely cogs in the much bigger machine of the Father redeeming those very enemies of their sin.
At the cross, Jesus gave up His life, poured out His blood, for His enemies, so that they might become sons of God. Jesus Christ, the perfect son of God, died in our place, so that the power of sin might be broken and brought to nothing. Though we are made to be perfect, but have magnificently failed, Christ has made a way to make us right before the Father. So if you, by faith, trust in Christ’s work on the cross, you can be covered in Christ’s righteousness and be made perfect before the Father, though you are very imperfect.
That is Christianity. And when you believe that, when you know that to be true, when you see that your place is secure in the Father’s family, then that will crack your stony heart. Out of the overflow of grace and mercy you have received as an enemy before a holy God, you will naturally long to go to your enemies and treat them with the same benevolence and love you received.
This is the life that Christ is calling us towards. A life that rejects what is safe, normal and natural, and pushes into what is supernatural, relying on the grace and mercy of Christ to lead us on.