Open Matthew 5:43-48.
Picture yourself in the crowd on the mountainside listening to the Messiah talking about the restoration of God’s kingdom. For you, the word neighbour means your fellow Jews, those who belong in God’s chosen family, the people who will be part of the kingdom when David’s son reigns.
The word enemy means those who’ve attacked your nation: Canaanites, Philistines, Ammonites, Moabites, Arameans, Edomites, … The worst enemies were the ones that destroyed God’s nation, making you part of their empire instead: Assyrians, Babylonians, Ptolemies, Seleucids, and in 63 BC the Romans.
You’ve been raised to hate the monsters who debased God’s kingdom. They’re not just your enemies: they’re God’s enemies:
Psalm 139:21–22 (ESV)
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.
That’s why you sit there like a stunned Saint Peter’s fish, incredulous of what Jesus has just asked you to do.
You’re expecting Israel’s newly appointed king to deliver his people from their enemies, like the judges of old. The whole point of having a king like Saul was to lead them against their enemies. And David—the ancestor and archetype of the Messiah—David was brilliant at defeating enemies. Israel’s whole history has been a fight for survival. So, what’s this nonsense about loving our enemies?
But Messiah Jesus isn’t taking his example from earlier kings like Saul and David. He’s seeing beyond them, to the heavenly sovereign. How does God treat his subjects? Is it only the good people who get another day of life when the sun rises in the morning, or do evil people get another day as well? Does he send rain to grow crops only for those who do right, or does he send rain to those who don’t do right also?
The heavenly sovereign is so indiscriminate, so absurdly generous, that it annoys the hell out of people who want the world to be just. If you’re one of those people, you probably take it on yourself to ensure that the unjust do get what they deserve. Chill out. Take a look at what God actually does, instead of trying enforce justice the way you think God should.
When you see how generous God is, there’s your example of how to care for people. Instead of giving your enemies what you think they deserve, give them an experience of your Father’s generosity in the way you care for them. The only chance they have of experiencing God might be through his children (5:45).
Loving those who love you back isn’t God’s love. That’ll never set the world right and restore his government. Why, even the mafia loves their own family (5:46).
If you only care about those in your own family, how are you functioning as God’s kingdom? Even godless nations do that (5:47).
No, you’re going to have to show perfect love to your enemies. It’s the only way they can experience your perfect Father (5:48).
Underlying Jesus’ teaching was an assumption. He did not believe he had to fight their enemies in order to re-establish God’s kingdom. He believed God will re-establish his own kingdom.
Was Jesus right on this one? You will not be free to love your enemies if you believe it’s up to you to sort them out.
What others are saying
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 137–141:
This is the point in the Sermon on the Mount where we encounter for the first time the word which summarizes everything in it: love. Immediately it is put into the clear-cut context of love for our enemies. …
Loving one’s enemies is not only an unbearable offense to the natural person. It demands more than the strength a natural person can muster, and it offends the natural concept of good and evil. But even more important, loving one’s enemies appears to people living according to the law to be a sin against God’s law itself. Separation from enemies and condemning them is what the law demands. But Jesus takes God’s law into his hands and interprets it. To overcome enemies by loving them—that is God’s will which is contained in the law. …
How does love become unconquerable? By never asking what the enemy is doing to it, and only asking what Jesus has done. Loving one’s enemies leads disciples to the way of the cross and into communion with the crucified one.
Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount. Story of God Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 2013), Mt 5:43-48:
It begins when we confess who is our enemy and it ends when we learn to love them as our neighbour. …
How are you turning your enemies into your neighbours?
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