Jesus’ teaching on Living The Life God Intended, in regard to hatred, love and maturity, comes from Matt 5:43-48 (read it!) To listen to the audio teaching click on http://followingjesus.org.za/sermons/living-the-life-god-intended-talk-12/
Jesus essentially says, “It’s not about loving your neighbour and then hating your enemy, but about loving your enemy. And in so doing, being perfect as your Father in heaven.”
Jesus completes the six ethical commands with the capstone of love of enemy as children who live the complete character of their heavenly Father. Thus v.48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, is the summary conclusion of all six ‘antitheses’ that Jesus taught from Matt 5:21-47. More of this just now.
We must first discuss Jesus’ quote of the great commandment to love your neighbour (Lev 19:18). Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures does it say what Jesus quotes, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’” The OT does not command us to “hate your enemy.” What then is Jesus quoting? From where does he get this? What is he referring to?
He’s referring to the oral tradition of certain groups in Israel at the time. The School of Rabbi Shammai – a contemporary of Jesus – taught that once you had obeyed Torah by loving your neighbour you were free to hate your enemy. Zealots who fought for Israel’s liberation agreed, teaching a holy war theology of killing the enemy in God’s name. They saw their enemies as God’s enemies, and vice versa – identified as the Romans, pagans, and ‘backslidden’ non-Torah-keeping-Jews. One could hate these people because they are judged and condemned by God. The Essenes in the Qumran sect had a similar teaching of loving the children of light (those in their community) and hating the children of darkness (those outside their community). Thus Jesus was quoting a known oral tradition in his day that legitimized hating one’s enemy.
The full text from Lev 19:18 says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.” The oral tradition that Jesus refers to understood the phrase “among your (own) people” to mean within God’s people, the covenant community. Once you’ve loved your own kind you can hate ‘the other’ – perceived as ‘the enemy’? Thus they joined the two and made one new revised version, “love your neighbour and hate your enemy.”
In so doing they conveniently overlooked the context, as in Lev 19:33-34, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Here Moses actually repeats word for word Lev 19:18, “love them (your neighbour… the foreigner) as yourself, for I am the Lord!” The Lord says your neighbour is BOTH your own kind AND the foreigner/stranger.
Due to the discipline of scripture memorisation, when rabbis quoted a text they had in mind the whole context. We see this in Jesus’ teaching practice. Therefore, did Jesus tell his story of The Good Samaritan in Lk 10:27-37 from this interpretation of “love your neighbour = love the foreigner-enemy” in Lev 19:18 cf. 33-34? He provocatively says to his ‘own kind’ that the perceived foreigner-enemy, the Samaritan, had mercy on his perceived enemy, the Jew – while fellow Jews walked passed their beaten up ‘own kind’ as if he were the enemy! How radical is this? Jesus himself prayed for his enemies while they were driving nails through his hands, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing!” And Paul speaks of God’s enemies in Rom 5:8-10: God demonstrates his great love for us in that while we were “God’s enemies” he sent his Son to die for us, so that we may be reconciled to God.
Love of the foreigner, ‘the other’, ‘the enemy’, is the stream in the OT that Jesus teaches. We see it in Ex 23:4-5 and Prov 25:21-22, the command to do good to one’s enemies in various ways, thereby “heaping burning coals on their heads.” The OT does not teach hatred of enemies, as in humans beings made in God’s image, but hatred of evil itself, as in evil spirit, pride, lying, cheating, killing, and so on (Prov 6:16-19). It differentiates evil itself from the human instrument through which it comes. Evil is personal spiritual power(s) opposed God and his purposes in the heavens and earth. Hebrew ha satan, “the opposer”, is God’s enemy, the devil and his spiritual kingdom of demons.
Paul clearly says our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against our real enemy: the unseen spiritual forces of evil that operate in, on, and through human beings (Eph 6:12). He says in Rom 12:9-21, “hate what is evil; cling to what is good… bless those who persecute you… do not repay evil for evil… do not take revenge but leave room for God’s wrath…” Then he ends by quoting Prov 25:21-22 word for word! And concludes with, “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). Paul learnt well from Messiah Yeshua ha Notzri and his first apostles.
Therefore, “love your enemies” is about loving people as in your neighbour, the person in need, the foreigner, your enemy. Jesus’ command fulfils the spirit and intention of Torah. In fact, Jesus’ “love your enemies” – put in this way and the meaning he gives to it – is unprecedented in all of Jewish literature. It is not stated, let alone taught, in this specific way in the entire OT, in the inter-testamental writings, and at the time of Jesus (in the Essenes, Josephus and other Jewish literature). It’s not found in the Rabbinical writings of the Mishnah and Talmud (250-500 AD), neither in all of the Greek philosophers and the Greco-Roman literature. Jesus was truly unique and radical in this regard.
Three questions arise: WHO is (y)our enemy? WHY must you love them? And exactly HOW do you love them? Jesus answers them in reverse order.
The HOW. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v.44). This is a form of Hebrew parallelism: “to love” is paralleled by “to pray”, and “your enemy” is paralleled by “those who persecute you.” I.e. to pray for our enemies is to love them. Prayer is the first and highest act of love for those who oppose us, persecute, exploit and treat us unjustly. How so? Because prayer is power! God is our Creator-Father who has all the power in the heavens and earth, and he hears the cry of his children when we pray for the wellbeing of ‘the other.’ But prayer is not the only HOW or way of loving our enemy. What other ways can you think of – practically, specifically?
The WHY. The reason Jesus gives as to why we must love our enemies is “that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (v.45). By loving our enemies we live up to, and live out, our Father’s character of love and mercy. This is our witness to the world of who God is. Jesus grounds his reason in the Father’s love and mercy for both the righteous and the unrighteous, for both good and bad people – because God makes the sun to shine on both, he causes the rain to fall on both (v.45). Therefore, be like your Father in heaven and love your good neighbour and your bad enemy alike. Then you will be seen to be God’s child, living his character – different to all other people.
Jesus presses the point: “If you (only) love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (v.46-47). Here is the WHO. He names two perceived enemies in his day: tax-collectors and pagans. The former were among the most despised of Jews, seen as enemies because they collected taxes for the oppressive Roman occupation. The latter were idol worshippers, perceived enemies of Judaism because they could lead non-Torah-keeping-Jews astray into idolatry as frequently happened in Israel’s history.
However, here’s the point: are Torah-keeping-Jews any different to the tax-collectors who love only their own kind? What recognition or reward does God give to that? If Gentile pagans greet only their own kind, and God’s covenant people Israel do the same, what good is that? What’s the difference?
So Jesus is saying to his followers, “You ARE different, you’ve entered God’s Kingdom, so BE different! Live differently by loving those who are not your own, by greeting those who are different to you. In so doing you show yourself to be children of the Father, living his nature of love for all people, especially for so-called enemies. This is the life of the new covenant that God intended and enabled by his Word and Spirit in you. Our Father recognises and rewards this life of love. He does so by using it (us) to make a difference in the world, as witness to his Kingdom of Heaven on earth – through you!”
The question must be contextualised and personalised: who is YOUR enemy? Both the perceived enemy of your group or national or cultural stereotype, as well as your personal enemy in daily life?
Jesus’ capstone summary and conclusion:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Greek for perfect, telios, does not mean sinless moral perfection, rather perfect as in complete, whole, full-grown, mature. It is the perfection of love. Luke’s version of the same phrase is enlightening: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:38). It can also be translated “compassionate.” I.e. Jesus is speaking of full-grown love, of being whole in God’s mature mercy and complete compassion for all, which shows God’s true nature.
In fact, Jesus’ “be perfect/merciful as your Father is perfect/merciful” is his interpretive quote of Lev 19:2, “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (the key verse in the Holiness Code, Lev 17 – 26). Here again we see Jesus’ mind working with the whole context of Lev 19:18, and Lev 19:33-34. Jesus interprets holiness, not as moral purity per se, but as wholeness, completeness, maturity in God’s love. This was in radical contrast to the Politics of Holiness in his day: the dominant system or way of legalistic purity and obedience to the letter of The Law – what Jesus called the “righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees.” Jesus understood holiness as the Politics of Love, his Messianic Way of Compassion, modelled in his life and ministry.
This is the perfection of love to which Jesus calls us. It’s the character of our Father that enables us to naturally live the life God intended, to easily obey Jesus’ six ethical teachings in Matt 5:21-47: “you’ve heard it said… but I say to you… go beyond anger to forgiveness and reconciliation, beyond lust to love, beyond divorce to integrity of marriage, beyond manipulation to truthfulness, beyond retaliation to non-violent resistance, and beyond hatred to love – loving your enemies.”