Forsaking one’s right for vengeance and retribution (vss. 43-47) would have seemed radical enough for those brought up on the Pharisees’ skewed notion of righteousness, but Jesus was not content to stop there. The righteousness He demands requires citizens of His Kingdom to do the most radical thing of all: love their enemies.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5.43-48)
The Righteousness of the Pharisees: Love Those Who Love You
True to form, the Pharisees based their teaching on the Law, but emphasized only the portions which fit their worldview. (There’s an important lesson here that almost all false teaching has just enough truth in it to make it appealing). The Law certainly commanded the Jews to love their neighbors (Leviticus 19.18), but no where did it command them to hate their enemies. It may be that the Pharisees derived their teaching from God’s instruction to Israel that they must utterly destroy the Canaanites (Deut. 20.16-18) or from the language in the imprecatory Psalms (see Psalm 139.21-22; 109). But they had ignored the Lord’s plain teachings that they love foreigners in their midst (Leviticus 19.33-34) and treat their enemies with kindness (Exodus 23.4-5). Tragically, the Jews’ notion of loving others had become so warped that by Jesus’ day they were debating who qualified as a “neighbor” (see Luke 10.29ff).
The Righteousness of the Kingdom: Love Those Who Hate You
Earlier, Jesus had said that His people would be “persecuted for the sake of righteousness…” (vss. 10-12). These are the enemies Jesus now refers to, ungodly men who hate us simply because we long for Jesus and seek to be righteous like Him. Not only must we refrain from returning hostilities, we must love them! But why? “…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” Recall from vs. 12 that we are like the prophets when we suffer for righteousness, but we are only like God if we turn around and love those who hate us! Our Father showers all men with His blessings… our Father gave His Son so that His enemies might be saved (John 3.16; Romans 5.8). And while on the cross our Lord prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34). “We have never looked more squarely into the face of the living God than when we stand by faith at the foot of the cross and hear His Son plead for mercy upon the ungodly men who are murdering Him. Here is power. Here is deity.” (Paul Earnhart)
Sadly, we have a nasty habit of adopting our society’s standard of love. Jesus calls us to escape the bonds of this world so we can realize the high calling of our God (vss. 46-47). The Jews hated and despised tax collectors and Gentiles. Tax collectors were known for their dishonesty and were viewed as traitors to the nation. The Gentiles were unclean because they did not abide by the Law, were not in covenant with God. Yet tax collectors and Gentiles loved their friends and neighbors. “In other words, the follower of Jesus must not stoop to the low standards of his society. He is, rather, to pattern himself after his heavenly Father. The disciple of Jesus will stand out in the world because of the divine quality of his love.” (D.A. Carson)
The Point of it All
Perfection is not a goal many believe they can obtain. Even citizens of the Kingdom often loose sight of this, reflecting often on our struggles and stumbles. But Jesus says perfection is the goal, because becoming like our Father is our true aim. And since He is love (1John 4.8) we must imitate Him (Ephesians 5.1-2). “The purpose of all ethical commands is to transform us into the likeness of our Father. So, if we have properly understood what Jesus is saying, the question with which we will end each day is not, ‘Have I committed murder or adultery or this or that?’ but rather, ‘Has God been first in my life today?’ ‘Have I kept His commandments?’ ‘Have I been true to Him?’ ‘Do I know Him better? Am I more like Him?‘” (Paul Earnhart)
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