Love your enemies – what Jesus tells us about loving others (from the Sermon on the Mount) (Matthew 5:43 – 5:48)
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the listeners:
You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven. God causes the sun to rise on evil people as well as the good and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous.
If you love those who already love you, what reward will you receive? Don’t the tax collectors already do that? If you greet only your own people, are you doing anything more than anyone else? Even pagan non-believers do that.
Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
What the story means to us today
Love everyone no matter what
Jesus’ message is quite clear – love everyone no matter what. It’s a simple command but one that the ancient Pharisees found difficult to follow. Many modern-day Christians fall short too.
Hate towards another typically derives from emotional pain that the “enemy” is perceived to cause. This emotional pain can emerge because of fear, the way the person treats you or because of your own inner shortcomings (e.g. envy). Shielding yourself via hate allows you to distance yourself from the person and insulate your feelings from hurt. But hatred damages your soul.
An alternative way to avoid emotional pain from an enemy is to love them instead. Loving a difficult person begins with compassion (as Jesus’ previous lesson taught us). If you replace hatred towards a person with compassion, love for them will become easier to embrace. In the end, unconditional love creates a climate of blessing and good will for all involved.
Additional thoughts and considerations
Love – a different message than the Pharisees taught
The Bible’s Love Thy Neighbor tenet is an excellent example of why God sent a new Messenger to Earth. Jesus’ message differed greatly from the philosophies of the Pharisees who believed that hatred of their enemies was God’s way of punishing them. However, no Old Testament law taught this. In fact, the Law taught the opposite (e.g. “If you come across your enemy’s donkey, be sure to return it”).
Still, the Old Testament command to “love your neighbor” was open to interpretation. Many Jews felt that the command literally meant to love the ones physically near you or those of your own country, nation, and religion. This of course, left open the idea of hating your enemy. As such, the Pharisees typically loved their fellow Jews but hated the Gentiles.
Jesus’ new message clarified the Old Testament command. Jesus taught that we should love everyone – even our enemies – while pointing out that it is easy to love persons who already love us. In fact, even sinners and godless pagans will love a person who first loves them. Christians however, are held to a much higher standard.
Love, not hate
Note that Jesus specially says we should “love” our enemies. He does not say, “Don’t hate them” but rather, phrases the command in such a manner to specifically suggest initiating a positive, proactive action towards the enemy – to the point of displaying kindness towards them.
Hating an evil person
It is important to understand the difference in hating someone and disowning evil and those who commit it (i.e. love the person, hate the sin). Even the Bible has two different words for hate. In the Old Testament, the word “hate” means “to set against” or disavow. This did not imply mistreatment or emotional hatred towards another but a distancing from evil. And it did not carry the overwhelming negative tone that “hate” does today.
In this context, “hate” should not be an emotion that is directed at another person or a feeling that is allowed to fester inside. Even soldiers in modern war are not taught to hate their enemy (although the enemy may be purposefully demeaned in order to reduce the solder’s humanity towards them). You can separate yourself from an evil person without allowing self-destructive hatred to well up inside. Again, feel compassion towards those who commit evil and love will soon follow.
Jesus concluded his “love your enemies” sermon with the command, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus’ command to “be perfect” does not imply that God expects us to be flawless but rather, is Jesus’ way of telling us to “shoot for the stars”. An attempt to act as God would is the ultimate moral guide. However, recognize that the only way to reach this unachievable goal will be when God gives us the capability to be perfect.
The science and history behind the story
God sends rain on the unrighteous
Jesus said that God causes the sun to rise on evil people as well as sending rain on the righteous. In Jesus’ day, Jewish sages saw rain as a sign of favor from God and the presence or absence of rain was seen as a symbol of God’s continued blessing (or displeasure with the inhabitants). Jesus’ observations that God sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous was surely controversial and potentially an affront to the Jewish leaders of the day.
Tax collectors – the ultimate enemy
Jesus’ reference to “tax collectors” was meant to provoke the listeners to shame by comparison. In Jesus’ day, Israel was an occupied country – oppressed by Romans who freely collected taxes and tolls from travelers and citizens. The role was often subcontracted to local citizens who earned a profit by demanding a higher tax from the people than required by the Roman government. Several historians noted that the Roman tax system led to widespread greed and corruption (the New Testament tells us that John the Baptist baptized tax collectors but urged them to collect no more than they had been ordered to collect). Thus, even though citizens (including Jesus) felt that taxes were moral and necessary for a functioning, proficient society, tax collectors were looked upon in an unfavorable light.
Notes on Biblical translation
Even “pagans” love others
Most biblical interpretations use “pagan” (or heathen) as the translation for the Greek word ethnoi which can also be translated as “Gentiles”. In our modern day language, Gentile relates to ethnic background while “pagan” refers to someone who worships a god other than the living God (more along the lines of Jesus’ message).
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor z and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
43–47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ 5:44 But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, 5:45 so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 5:46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? 5:47 And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they? 5:48 So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? 47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? 48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.