Love Your Enemies (Matt. 5:38-48)
In Matthew 5:20, Jesus said that his followers’ righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees who were considered by many to be the pinnacle of godliness. For the rest of the chapter, he illustrates the kind of righteousness he’s calling for by contrasting the true meaning of various Old Testament laws with how they were being misapplied by the Pharisees. In these final two examples, Jesus addresses retaliation and how we are to treat our enemies.
Followers of Jesus are to refrain from retaliation when wronged and should actively seek the good of their enemies.
The “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” command Jesus references shows up three times in the Old Testament, and it had a twofold effect for Israel. First, it helped to define what justice looked like for the nation by preventing punishments that were either too lenient or too harsh. The punishment must fit the crime, it said.
Second, in giving this law to the whole nation, God meant for it to prevent its citizens from taking the law into their own hands. Justice was a matter for the courts. Personal wrongs, such as being insulted, should not be brought into the realm of personal vengeance, where escalation- rather than justice- is too often the result.
And yet the Pharisees twisted this command into a justification for the very thing it was given to prevent. An “eye for an eye” to them meant, for example, “an insult for an insult”. But Jesus is clear: this law that restricted revenge is fulfilled in those who do not seek it, no matter how much wrong they have suffered. As his followers, we should not respond to insults with insults (v. 39). We should be prepared to give up things that are ours by right (v. 40; 1 Cor. 6:1-7). When asked to do things we might consider to be beneath us, we should do more than is asked of us (v. 41). And we should be generous with our resources without asking what’s in it for us (v. 42). In this way, we will model of our Savior who did the same (1 Pet. 2:21-23).
The last example of the “greater righteousness” (5:20) Jesus calls for in his followers deals with how we treat our enemies. While the command “love your neighbor” is found in Scripture (Lev. 19:18), “hate your enemy” is not. But it’s not hard to see where this thinking came from. Just as the Pharisees had limited “adultery” to the act of marital unfaithfulness and “murder” to the act of bloodshed, so here they limited their concept of “neighbor” to Jews only. If they’re only called to love fellow Jews, they reasoned, the implication must be that they should hate their enemies.
This question of what constitutes a “neighbor” was a big one in Jesus’ day. It was this very question that prompted him to give the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), in which he said that our “neighbor” is any fellow human whose needs we can meet and whose good we can seek. This includes our enemies and persecutors who stand in need of God’s mercy. While they seek our harm, we are to seek their good by actively praying for them and seeking ways to do them good. In doing this, we’ll imitate our Father who shows patience and kindness to all people, whether they love him or not.
In calling us to be “perfect”, Jesus isn’t calling us to attain a state of sinless perfection in this life. He’s calling us to model the perfect love of the Father that he has just been describing. Christians are the light of the world (5:14), and that light will shine brightly when our love is not just given to our friends and families, but to those who have not and may never show us love in return.
- When do you find yourself wanting to retaliate against others (co-workers, family, friends)? Which of the four responses Jesus encourages us to have (vv. 39-42) are most difficult for you to live out? Why?
- Who in your life would constitute an “enemy” (someone who, for any reason, doesn’t like you)? What are some ways you can actively love them?
- What pains and injustices did Jesus himself overlook in order to love his enemies?
- Read John 13:35. Why is it so important for us as Jesus’ followers to love others? What is at stake when we fail to show this love?
Matthew 5:44 – “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
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