Jesus gives up the game with this one.
“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48).
A Quick Recap
This is the last section of Jesus’s “moral teachings,” the last of five short discussions of law. The number is interesting to me, given that in biblical typology, the number five is considered to represent grace. The law itself, rightly understood, is a gift of grace; it is grace that makes us righteous by faith; and in the end, to live the law the way Jesus tells us to results in grace upon grace: grace to those who anger us, grace in broken relationships, grace in commitments to others, grace in our dealings with ourselves, grace and truth all the way around.
In a previous post I said that the last two commands Jesus deals with, rather than being two of the ten commandments, are more “big principle” kinds of laws, and they define justice and love respectively.
Jesus shifts the discussion of justice from retribution to restoration; here, he shifts the concept of love from something earned to something freely and unconditionally given.
Love as the Unifying Principle
Love is a big deal to Jesus. According to him, love is the unifying principle of the entire law. Elsewhere, asked what is the most important commandment in the law, he responds that the greatest and first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; “and the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
For Jesus it ALL boils down to love. Love is why he came. He came to inspire our love for God, to fellowship with us, to give his life in love, to rescue his enemies in love, to teach us to love. Love is the whole point.
Misty Edwards says, “When we stand before Jesus, he will only ask one question: Did you learn to love?”
Beyond Loving Our Neighbor
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is a difficult enough command to put into practice, although we can wrap our heads around it easily enough. It’s not hard to see that it’s good for us to love other people as much as we love ourselves, and to try to benefit them and do good toward them.
No one really admires outright selfishness. We talk a big game in our culture about being “true to ourselves,” but we all know something’s wrong if that means flipping off everyone else.
But “love your enemies” is another thing. We may instinctively know that community is good and neighbors should huddle together, but it’s usually an outside enemy we’re huddling AGAINST. We value community in part because of the world “out there,” the people and groups and races and parties that are against us.
Some of this enmity is perceived; some of it’s real. Jesus doesn’t say persecution is all in our heads. He was speaking to people who lived under a foreign empire, a dominant power that exercised sometimes brutal policies. When he was born, a half-breed puppet king called Herod had all the infants two years old and younger murdered in the region of his birth. When the Jews tried to stage an uprising, the Romans crucified hundreds of Jewish men and lined the roads with them, so they could gasp and writhe and die in public above their families and friends.
But at least the Romans respected Jewish religion. Regimes before them were culturally and religiously genocidal. A few generations ago, before Rome, Judea had suffered the rule of Antiochas Epiphanes, who made it his aim to stamp out their religion and culture and sacrificed a pig on their most sacred altar. Before Greece they had Persia, with Haman’s famous attempt to massacre every Jew in seven provinces because one stubborn man named Mordecai wouldn’t bow down to him. These were people who knew about enmity and persecution.
An Understandable Postscript
Somewhere along the way, in the long history of the Jews against everyone else, they had tacked on a very understandable line to the original law: “Love your neighbor, but hate your enemy.” That latter part isn’t in the law, but it had become pseudo-Scripture by Jesus’s time. Understandably.
In fact when enmity is real, when hatred and persecution are real, it can feel WRONG not to hate your enemy. It becomes a duty, something the righteous MUST do so as to stand up for the truth, to preserve their identity and their personhood, to remain faithful.
But Jesus doesn’t agree.
He tips his own hand here: he has, after all, come to die for his enemies. He plans to carry out “agree with your adversary quickly” to the furthest possible degree: he is going to seek reconciliation and restoration with people who don’t want it or deserve it.
This kind of love is completely unreasonable. Paul draws out the wonder of it:
“For while were still helpless, at the appointed moment, Christ died for the ungodly. For rarely will someone die for a just person—though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die.
But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! Much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by His blood, we will be saved through Him from wrath.
For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life! And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have no received this reconciliation [i.e. atonement] through Him.” (Romans 5:6-11)
The Nature of God-Love
God burns on his own fuel.
I was lighting a candle beside my bed one night, watching the wick catch and began to burn, when I heard those words in my heart.
Here is the answer to why and how God loves so unreasonably, the divine nature that calls us to do the same.
When Moses encountered God on the mountaintop, he saw a bush on fire, but it was not consumed. The fire, then, wasn’t using the bush as fuel; it was burning from some other source.
God burns on his own fuel.
I didn’t really understand that, though I was awed by it, but the next day I was out walking and thinking about love, and relationships, and I suddenly got it (part of it, anyway): this is what it means that God’s love is unconditional, that it’s based in his nature and not in our response.
Human love needs to be fed by outside fuel. That’s the premise of best-selling books like THE FIVE LOVE LANGUAGES: everyone has a “love tank,” and if it doesn’t get filled with the proper fuel, it becomes very hard to feel loved or give love. We end up running on empty and burning out. To love someone who doesn’t love you back (in a way you can receive and feel) is the hardest thing in the world.
But it’s not hard for God, because while he wants our love, loves our love, asks for and receives our love, he doesn’t need it. The love with which he loves us comes out of his own nature, it draws on an energy source that isn’t us.
So he can love his enemies, though they do not love him back.
He can give endlessly, the rain and the sunshine, though we don’t return the giving.
He can go to the cross for people who have only barely begun to figure out who he is, much less love him with the kind of love he desires. His burning love can carry him that far.
He calls this being “perfect.”
What Love Looks Like
Often we think of God’s love in purely religious terms. God’s love is expressed in the death of Jesus and the forgiveness of our sins, with the gift of eternal life tacked on to that: that is the sum total of how we understand God as loving us.
Yet Jesus declares the sun to be the love of God, and the rain. Sent indiscriminately to God’s friends and enemies alike, because he loves them.
There is no one the love of God doesn’t reach and no one who has not felt it, even basked in it, without necessarily recognizing what it was.
Sun and rain together give life and energy to everything that grows and lives on the earth, thus feeding us, watering us, giving us gentle breezes and thunderstorms, giving us waves and cloud formations and unspeakable beauty.
This is the love of God. For you and for me, and for our enemies.
Somewhere across the world a terrorist is waking up, drawing a breath, feeling sun on his face, and all of this is a gift of love to him.
Somewhere a human trafficker is enjoying a drink of water or the taste of his favorite food, and this is God’s gift to him, for he too is loved.
A despot in some foreign country, responsible for the ruin of hundreds of lives, is feeling the lift of his heart as a warm breeze blows across his face, bearing with it the scent of flowers and of rain, and this is the touch of grace, of love—perhaps the last such touch he will ever feel before a heart attack or assassination or old age or suicide takes him away.
God will judge his enemies. He will pour out his burning wrath upon them.
But first he will love them.
For he has always loved them.
Do this too, Jesus says, “so you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” The word “sons” here emphasizes family resemblance, genetic propensity. Love your enemies, says Jesus, and you will look like God. Perhaps you will remind the world of Him.
The Reward of Love
Jesus is very unembarrassed about rewards.
Ask him why you should do certain things, and I have no doubt he will say, “Because of the reward!”
You could spend your life just loving those who love you back, those who fuel your tank; you could greet and honor only your own brothers and let the rest of the world stay outside. You could do that, but then where, Jesus wants to know, would be your reward? You’ll be doing what’s only human, what everybody—even the turncoats and outsiders themselves—does.
There’s no reward in being exactly like everybody else.
Mediocrity doesn’t win the day.
Middle-of-the-road doesn’t look like God.
You can be like the herd, or you can step out and be like GOD, look like God, be perfect like God. There’s a reward for that.
When Jesus talks about rewards, I believe they’re both intrinsic and extrinsic. He doesn’t say what the extrinsic reward of loving your enemies will be; we can assume this is where Pauline talk of “crowns” and “wreaths” comes in. But the intrinsic reward is perfection.
God measures perfection rather differently than we do.
He’s not a perfectionist, just perfect.
To be “perfect” is to be whole, to be complete. Finished.
Isn’t that what we all desire?
Isn’t that the deepest yearning of all our hearts—to be WHOLE? To be everything we’re meant to be? To not be broken anymore but finished, entire, lacking nothing?
There’s a road to that kind of perfection, Jesus says; it’s attainable. It’s love.
Love Your Enemies
Start by loving your neighbor, like the law said, but keep going, keep pressing forward, love even your enemies and PRAY for them, because when you come and pray to God for your enemies you’re talking to someone who loves you and loves your enemies and burns on his own fuel.
And then you will be perfect too.
(This is Part 53 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)