Matthew 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Love Your Enemies

Jesus demands not only that we not resist evil people assaulting our honor or possessions (vv. 38-42) but that we go so far as to actively love our enemies.

Jesus Demands Love Even for Enemies (5:43-44)

When Jesus explains his final quotation from the Bible, Love your neighbor, he adds to the quote an implication some of his contemporaries found there: hate your enemy. He is probably speaking of all kinds of enemies. Personal enemies were common enough in the setting of Galilean villages (Horsley 1986; Freyne 1988:154), but Jesus' contemporaries may have also thought of corporate threats to Israel or the moral fabric of the community (see Borg 1987:139). Whereas the biblical command to love neighbors (Lev 19:18) extends to foreigners in the land (Lev 19:33-34; compare Lk 10:27-37), other texts hold up a passionate devotion to God's cause that bred hatred of those who opposed it (Ps 139:21-22; see also 137:7-9). Popular piety, exemplified in the Qumran community's oath to "hate the children of darkness," may have extended such biblical ideology in Jesus' day (see Sutcliffe 1960). Jesus may well mean both personal and corporate enemies (Moulder 1978).

Jesus builds a fence around the law of love (Mt 22:39), amplifying it to its ultimate conclusion (compare Ex 23:4-5). In so doing, he makes demands more stringent than the law. He also makes a demand that can require more than merely human resources for forgiveness. Corrie ten Boom, who had lost most of her family in a Nazi concentration camp, often lectured on grace. But one day a man who came to shake her hand after such a talk turned out to be a former prison guard. Only by asking God to love through her did she find the grace to take his hand and offer him Christian forgiveness.

Since Jesus does not say exactly what to pray for our persecutors, some of us have been tempted to pray, "God, kill that person!" Needless to say, the context makes clear that Jesus means to pray good things for our enemies. Old Testament prayers for vindication (such as 2 Chron 24:22; Jer 15:15) still have their place (2 Tim 4:14; Rev 6:10), but our attitude toward individuals who hurt us personally or corporately must be love (Lk 23:34; Acts 7:60). Again, Jesus' words are graphic pictures that force us to probe our hearts; they do not cancel the Old Testament belief in divine vindication (Mt 23:33, 38; Rev 6:10-11), but summon us to leave our vindication with God and seek others' best interests in love.

Jesus Appeals to a Positive and Negative Example (5:45-47)

First he provides the ultimate moral example: God (vv. 45, 48). Jewish teachers generally recognized, as Jesus did, that God was gracious to all humanity, including the morally undeserving (for example, Sipre Deut. 43.3.6); they also saw rain as one of God's universal signs of beneficence. But after adducing the ultimate moral example, Jesus adduces an example from the opposite end of his hearers' moral spectrum (vv. 46-47): he provokes his hearers to shame by comparing their ability to obey the love commandment with that of tax-gatherers and Gentile idolaters, the epitome of moral reprobates (Mt 6:7; 20:25; 18:17; compare, for example, Sipre Deut. 43.16.1). One whose righteousness would surpass that of scribes and Pharisees (5:20) must exemplify a higher standard of righteousness than loving those friendly to their interests.

Jesus Demands That We Be Perfect like God (5:48)

What Jesus illustrated with graphic, concrete examples earlier in the sermon (vv. 21-47) he now epitomizes in a summary statement that forces us to go beyond mere examples. We can appeal to no law to tell us that we are righteous enough-that would be legalism. Instead, we must desire God's will so much that we seek to please him in every area of our lives-that is holiness. Jesus says that God's law was never about mere rules; instead, God desires a complete righteousness of the heart, a total devotion to God's purposes in this world.

That God becomes the standard of comparison suggests that Jesus' instruction here is exhortation, setting a goal, not assuming a state to which the hearers have already come. (The issue of whether any Christian is perfect is irrelevant here. All of us can learn to better reflect God's character; at the same time, God promises us power to overcome any given temptation; and if we can overcome any temptation, we should choose to say no to every temptation.) And as long as God represents the moral standard, none of us has room to boast; all of us must unite as brothers and sisters in need and seek God's kingdom and righteousness with all our hearts.

Previous commentary:
Avoid Retribution and Resistance

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