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 makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
A few thoughts for meditation:
In the next section on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus confronted a final misinterpretation of the Old Testament about the boundary between love and hate, building on his teaching against revenge just before this. They were taught to love their neighbors but hate their enemies. The command to “love your neighbor” was given in Leviticus 19:18. There was no command to “hate your enemy”. David did pray “I hate those who hate you” (Ps 139:21-22), but he also refused to get personal revenge against his enemies. In his prayers he trusted the Lord to get vengeance in his own way and time. How the idea of hating your enemy crept into the popular mindset in Jesus day is not clear, but the historical circumstances perhaps had something to do with it. The people of Israel had been oppressed by foreign powers like the Romans for centuries. Some deliberately attacked their religion and way of life, trying to impose paganism or outlaw Judaism. This fueled much of the militant Zealots at the time. Another time, a scribe asked Jesus who a “neighbor” was (Lk 10:29), prompting the parable of the good Samaritan.
Into these debates about defining a neighbor or enemy, and how to treat each, Jesus again provided the correct teaching of the law and applied it to the heart. You love not only who you consider to be a neighbor, but your enemy as well. Even more personal, Jesus called his disciples to pray for those who persecute them. One scholar remarked, “Praying for an enemy and loving him are mutually reinforcing. The more you love, the more prayer; the more prayer, the more love.” By showing this attitude toward your enemies, you show yourself to be a true child of God. Jesus then pointed them to gracious character of God as their example. He sends sun and rain upon both good and evil, just and unjust. Even though many deserve judgment for opposing and despising God, God shows mercy for a time. True disciples then must follow that divine example of mercy.
Jesus then applied this in a more practical way. It’s easy to love those who love you or who are easy for you to love. It’s easy to love those who are more like you. It provides a great mutual benefit. And even unbelievers (i.e. “Gentiles”) do that among themselves. But a higher form of love is to love those who will not love you back, or who are much harder to love because they are so different from you, and to love without any expectation of personal gain. This love is more costly. That is the example God himself provides, loving those who will never love him back. That is a mark of his perfect character which his children must follow. We see the ultimately expression of that love through Christ himself, dying for his enemies (Rom 5:8-10).
It’s important to note: Jesus did not stop calling people “enemies” when they oppose or persecute you. Loving them does not mean you naively ignore their evil intentions and actions toward you. They are still “enemies” because they have a hostile relationship toward you. But that hostility should only be one-sided, coming from them alone. The issue here is how you personally think about and treat your enemy. A true disciple will not seek revenge against his enemy, but try to win his enemy back to God through his conduct and prayers. His hope is to change an enemy into a brother, viewing his enemies with some compassion knowing they are in bondage to sin and death and in need of salvation, just as you were. That is the kind of mercy God has shown you in his providence and through the work of Christ. These are lofty standards and humanly impossible for us to attain on our own. So, when you find yourself falling short, call upon your perfect Father to change you into a child like him.