Love Your Enemies
Scripture: Matthew 5:43-48
This morning, we come to the end of chapter 5 in the Sermon on the Mount.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
This is the most blatant distortion of God’s law by the religious leaders so far. Love your enemy was a law. Hate your enemy was not a law. They justified this extra statement by narrowly defining the word “neighbor” as a fellow Jew.
In other words, they chose to conveniently interpreted the law in the this way: I must love ONLY my neighbor, or I must love only my NEIGHBOR – my Jewish neighbor.
The religious leaders would also defend this interpretation using the many obvious examples of God punishing His enemies. Surely God doesn’t want us to love His enemies?
Jesus objects to this narrow interpretation.
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.
In other words, you prove yourself to be an enemy of God by failing to love your enemies. And by saying this, Jesus widens the definition of neighbor.
The command to love one’s neighbor is found in Leviticus 19. Twice in the same chapter, God commands the people to show kindness to foreigners living among them.
In verse 10, he tells them to leave some of the harvest for foreigners to gather. In verse 34, he says this:
You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
In other words, remember who you were and who you now are! The command to love our enemies is rooted in the faithfulness of God to people who don’t deserve His love – people like us. Who are we to decide which people are neighbors and which are enemies?
Jesus answers a similar question in Luke 10.
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”
27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In other words, who do I have to love Jesus? And who can I ignore?
30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.
31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.
32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.
35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’
36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Several years ago, I spent four Sundays unpacking the rich meaning of this story and it still wasn’t enough. In a few sentences, Jesus teaches us about generosity, compassion, mercy, and impartiality. He shows us what it looks like to be a good neighbor.
But the punchline of the story is the unlikely hero. The good neighbor in the story is someone the lawyer would have quickly identified as an enemy. Jews and Samaritans hated one another.
But Jesus uses this story to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And the answer then is literally anyone in need. Whoever needs you to be a neighbor is your neighbor. Disciples of Jesus must not ignore the needs of people we would rather avoid.
As we keep reading in Matthew 5, Jesus defends this view even further.
For he (your Father in heaven) makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Jesus is describing what we call “common grace”. There is a coming judgment, in which God will punish the guilty. But in the meantime, God continues to provide sunshine and rain for everyone – without partiality. Even his enemies receive common blessing.
And Jesus says this is the standard of our doing good to others.
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?
What’s Jesus saying? He’s saying that love is not unique to Christians. All humans experience love, because we are made in God’s image. Even tax collectors can love people.
I have to wonder if Jesus said this with a wink to Matthew, who recorded these words for us. Matthew was a tax collector – and they were hated because they worked for the Romans and most of them took extra money from their own people.
Even the worst among us love their friends. Even the pagans. And Jesus says that is not enough. We want to give ourselves a pat on the back for doing something all decent human beings do.
But love of enemies – that is a uniquely Christian virtue. And then the chapter ends with this verse:
48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
A heavy ending to a heavy chapter…
Some people believe that Jesus is cutting against the entire grain of Scripture by suggesting that literal perfection is possible for us in this life. It is not and that is not his purpose. The standard is perfection, but Christians are far from perfect.
Remember, this sermon is about kingdom life. What does it look like to be a follower of King Jesus? And remember that the most important characteristic is a recognition of need. It begins and continues to grow by way of repentance and faith.
Jesus started this section on the law by saying that our righteousness must exceed that of the religious leaders. And He illustrates that standard in several ways, slowly raising the bar.
Think of it like adding weight in a workout until you literally can’t lift it anymore. Have you been angry with anyone? Have you experienced lust? Have you broken a promise? Have you endured insults without retaliation? Do you love even your enemy? Are you perfect?
You have to be perfect! I can’t Jesus. I can’t do it. Exactly.
So, let’s evaluate our lives together and be honest with ourselves.
The people who get our love tend to be the people we know, the people we trust, and the people we like. This is especially true in the American South, and we know it. We want to know where you’re from and who you know. It’s not easy to move here from somewhere else in the country and find real community.
This is true even in our churches – maybe especially in our churches. Every church thinks it is friendly, but very often visitors to churches will describe the same church as cold and unwelcoming. Why? Because the members are friendly with the other members and ignore the visitors. Who would Jesus move towards in a crowd of people? The ones sitting alone. The people on the margins.
This is why when I describe Christ Fellowship, I like to say we are a family – but I don’t stop there. If that’s all I said, most people on the outside would hear, “They’re a family and I’m not a part of it.”
Instead, I say, “We are a family, but we are always adopting.” You can be part of this family. We want you to be a part of this family. But we have to work together as a church to help new people see that and believe it.
And yet, that’s only scratching the surface of what Jesus is telling us here. These words can be applied to all the reasons human beings naturally divide themselves into groups of friends and enemies because of sin. We do it because of racism or ethnocentrism. We divide based on income or class. We divide based on age, affinity, politics – there is really no end to ways we create enemies as human beings.
To get to the heart of what Jesus is calling us to do, we need to think of an enemy. Think of someone you really can’t stand – someone you wouldn’t be comfortable in the same room with. And you may have trouble thinking of a specific person – but I bet you can think of a category. It might be a liberal or a conservative. It might be a gay or trans person. It might someone from your past that hurt you specifically.
Now, I want you to imagine standing shoulder to shoulder with that person before the throne of God, arm around them, talking to God and asking for this person’s blessing! Listen to this quote by John Stott:
“Jesus seems to have prayed for his tormentors actually while the iron spikes were being driven through his hands and feet; indeed the imperfect tense suggests that he kept praying, kept repeating his entreaty ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’.
If the cruel torture of crucifixion could not silence our Lord’s prayer for his enemies, what pain, pride, prejudice, or sloth could justify the silencing of ours?”
And this is where I can begin to see what it must look like for God to love me, because my sin was equally the cause of Christ’s torture. I was an enemy.
That is the nature of God’s love – to love the otherwise unlovable. It is the only love that conquers the world. I am not perfect. Neither are you. But a perfect love and a perfect righteousness is available to us in Christ Jesus.