Did Moses Say?
Matthew 5:21-48 is part of the Sermon on the Mount and is known as the “Antitheses”, as Jesus goes through a number of sayings that come from the Old Testament Law given by God through Moses. Jesus does not contradict what was given in the Old Testament Law as he had earlier said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). Rather, Jesus goes deeper than the saying in the Law, noting that it is not simply the action that is forbidden, but also the intention behind it. For example, not only is it wrong to physically murder someone, it is wrong to have anger against anyon, as that is murder in the heart (see Matthew 5:21-22). Jesus shows the higher standard of righteousness expected by God’s people (Matthew 5:20). There is a slight difference, however, in the last of these antithesis in Matthew 5:43-48 that I want to explore a bit.
Love Your Neighbor...But Hate Your Enemy?
In Matthew 5:43, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” The first part of the statement is familiar, as it is found in the Old Testament Law (Leviticus 19:18) and one that became a key teaching by Jesus as we are called to love God and our neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). However, this second part is not familiar, as it is not actually found in the Old Testament. It was something of an interpretation or teaching that religious leaders had as they thought it was the inverse of “love your neighbor” - we should love those who are like us or around us, but those who are different are to be despised. However, love of neighbor does not mean we should hate our enemy; love is not a zero sum game in that we can only love a certain number of people and must hate the rest because there is only so much love to go around. In fact, Proverbs 25:21 in the Old Testament actually teaches to do good to our enemies: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” This correction given by Jesus is a good reminder to double check the sayings and teachings that we hear from religious leaders to make sure they are reflecting God’s Word. Just because it is a familiar saying (and we want it to be true) does not mean that it is true.
No, Love Your Enemy
Jesus goes on to note how we are to love our enemies, as he says these things:
“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.”
The natural tendency is to hate or despise those who oppose us, but Jesus says that his followers are called to a higher standard. We live in a world and time when it seems like if someone is not with us or for us, we assume they are against us. We live in a world filled with ad hominem attacks on people, with people saying degrading things about those who are on the opposite side of an issue from them. Jesus says there is a better way -- pointing us to the way that God blesses those who are unrighteous as well as the righteous. We can disagree with someone and think that they are wrong while still defending their honor and dignity as one made in the image of God. We are to pray for and bless those who persecute us, hoping for the best for them. In doing so, we are following the way of Jesus who prayed for those who were putting him on the cross and still invited people to himself even after facing hostility and rejection from others. But even more than just praying for them, we are to find ways to bless them, just as God blesses the unrighteous with the sun and rain (v. 45). In fact, Jesus makes the point that it is by loving our enemies that we show that we are God’s children (v. 45); it does not earn us salvation, but shows that salvation is at work in our hearts. It is because our natural tendency is only to love those who are like us or like us (see vv. 46-47), but we are called to love our neighbor (and recognize that every person is our neighbor) and those who oppose us (our enemies) , which we can do through Jesus’s grace and power at work in our lives.
We have been called to love our neighbor and love our enemy, so the question for us this week is: How can we love, pray, and bless those who oppose us?
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