Loving your enemies
Again Jesus challenges the Jewish teaching about enemies. The Old Testament phrase has been corrupted. Jesus' disciples are to love and pray for their enemies.
Again Jesus challenges the Jewish teaching about enemies. The Old Testament phrase has been corrupted. Jesus' disciples are to love and pray for their enemies.
Hello and it's so good to have you back for Series 4, Episode 10. We are in the Sermon on the Mount and we're looking at the most important subject of 'loving your enemies' with Jesus' famous teaching towards the end of Matthew 5 as our subject today.
Introduction and Recap
The context of the Sermon on the Mount is an early part of Jesus' ministry. He's established himself in Galilee with lots of preaching and travelling, gathered disciples, just appointed 12 Apostles and he is delivering to them, and other disciples, his teaching about Christian lifestyle. This is Christian ethics; this is discipleship; this is the way that we are called to live as Christians. So it's foundational teaching for all of us all the way through Church history, and remains as important today as it was then. We're coming to the end of chapter 5 which is a particular section in the Sermon on the Mount. Chapter 5 of Matthew, started with the Beatitudes and then briefly dealt with Jesus' attitude to the Mosaic law - which is critical to chapter 5 - in Matthew 5:17 - 20, where he described himself as fulfilling the Law of Moses. He contrasts what the Law of Moses says to his application, often using the expression, ‘You heard it said, but I say to you’ and that's exactly what we're going to find in this passage. The Law of Moses is not officially part of Christian ethics, unless principles are taken from there and incorporated into Christian ethics, or perhaps developed.
We're going to look at an interesting example today. This is closely connected to the last episode, Episode 9, where we looked at the question of self defence. Jesus taught in a revolutionary way, not to resist an evil person, speaking about opposition to Christians and disciples of Jesus, that he anticipated would arise fairly soon. It hadn't arisen at that stage - a very early stage. Jesus was very popular but it wasn't going to be long before the followers of Jesus were going to be opposed in Israel by the authorities and others, and then opposed also in other places where the gospel was preached. That is the context: he's dealing with opposition. He spoke of not being self defensive, of not formally resisting evil people when they are challenging our faith and trying to undermine us by individual actions. He spoke in the previous passage that we looked at also in the context where the state of the government is not supporting the Church.
Two Sayings in One
In this particular passage, that theme is developed further by Jesus looking at the question of who is your neighbour and what about your enemies - people who are opposing you. This is a really important question for us and has all sorts of different applications for us in different cultures, and different contexts around the world. The applications you make in your context might be different to the ones that I make in mine. Jesus' teaching is incredibly important for us. We're going to read the passage, Matthew 5: 43 - 48. There is a parallel in Luke 6: 32 - 36, but we're sticking with Matthew's account.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that 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. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the pagans do that? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’Matthew 5:43-48, NIV
At the beginning, we see a very interesting contrast in verse 43, ‘You've heard it was said, ‘love your neighbour and hate your enemy’’.That's an interesting saying. It was a saying that was used by the religious teachers of the day, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. What we need to do is analyse this particular statement carefully, before we move any further to try and work out what this passage is saying to us. That expression, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’ is two phrases combined from different sources. ‘Love your neighbour’ is an expression drawn from the Law of Moses and the book of Leviticus, as we'll see in just a moment. ‘Hate your enemy’ is a statement that is not found in the Law of Moses and was added in by the religious teachers of the Jews, in order to define the difference between a neighbour and an enemy, in their way of thinking. To put this simply, the neighbours in their thinking were fellow Jews and particularly fellow Jews who were religious and devout and followed the Law of Moses. The enemies were people of other nations, and people in Jewish society who they considered to be irreligious. There were various other types of definition similar to that around at the time. Basically what the religious teachers had done, by putting these two statements together, defined who your neighbour is, in a narrow way - a fellow Jew and particularly a fellow Jew who is following the Jewish faith in a wholesome way. They had made each of these statements equally authoritative.
They'd introduced the idea into their religion that you need to actually have an attitude of hatred - direct emotional opposition - to people other than your own community, and particularly other ethnic groups and perhaps those Jews that they didn't respect in their own society. That was amazing. The ordinary people were encouraged, by the religious teachers, to have a prejudice against people who were different from themselves. I wonder if that reminds you of anything in your own experience. In most of our societies and countries, there is prejudice against some ethnic group, some other country, some incomers into our society, some parts of our society, some people of a different racial group, or colour of skin. Those kinds of prejudices are all over the world, aren't they? Maybe people of a different religious group - same ethnicity but a different religious group - in your society. Those prejudices are very common. They can solidify into distinguishing between people, and perhaps coming to the sort of categories that are expressed here: the difference between neighbours and enemies.
Jesus' Principle of Love
‘You have heard that it was said, ‘love your neighbour and hate your enemy’ but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.Matthew 5:43, NIV
Jesus challenges this statement. He does not accept that you can take the idea of hating your enemies into Christian discipleship at all. It's completely counter-intuitive to Christianity. The starting point for Jesus is that the expression, ‘love your neighbour’ is one that he's going to build on in his teaching. We need to pause and go back to the first time that that statement is used in the Old Testament, in Leviticus 19:18, which says,
‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.’Leviticus 19:18, NIV
The neighbour there, in that context, was indeed the fellow Jew. So the religious teachers were right to focus on the fact that God said that you should love your fellow Jew, particularly those who are following the ways of God. But when they added, ‘hate your enemy’, they were adding something that Jesus completely disagreed with. In fact, he had the opposite philosophy. Here's another example of a Jewish saying at the time. There was a sect of the Jews who lived in monastic communities in the desert areas, by the Dead Sea, called the Essenes, and they had a saying, ‘Love your brother, hate the outsiders.’ Jesus is now redefining this whole thing by introducing the idea ‘Love your enemies.’ This is an amazing thing to say. The enemies here that he has primarily in mind are the enemies of the Christian faith. We've already seen this theme develop in the previous passage verses 38 to 42, which we looked at in the last episode. Here Jesus continues this theme. Previously, he's encouraged a very gracious attitude towards enemies of the faith who want to insult you, undermine you, take some of your possessions, and here, he says you've actually got to love your enemies, and even pray for those people who are persecuting you because of your faith.
Three Categories of People to Love
If we take all of Jesus' teachings on loving other people, we will find that there are three different categories of people that Jesus calls us specifically to show a loving attitude towards. The first one is mentioned here - your enemies, people who are enemies of the faith. That's a very hard thing. We're going to reflect on that in more detail towards the end of this episode.
The second one is anyone who is in need who we have the power to help. We draw this from the parable of the good Samaritan, which we'll look at in a later episode, in Luke 10: 25 - 37. That parable starts out with a discussion between Jesus and a Jewish man who was coming to talk to him about the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ When Jesus said, ‘You need to love your neighbour as yourself,’ the question comes back from the man, ‘Well, who is my neighbour? I thought it was just my fellow Jews, who lived in my community as Leviticus 19: 18 implies’, was the thought in his mind. Jesus tells a story where, as you will probably remember, but we'll look at it in the episode when we come to it, a man is robbed on the road. His body is left for dead. He's a Jewish man. Fellow Jews passed by on the other side of the road, and a Samaritan man comes and helps him. The Jews and Samaritans were two ethnic groups who didn't get along side-by-side, in the central parts of the country of Israel. We find that the Samaritan showed what loving your neighbour means, by helping a person in need who he had the opportunity to help - whoever he was, or whoever she was - the ethnic origin of that person, their nationality, their gender, their age. None of these things mattered. When Jesus redefines love of other people, he starts with loving your enemies - that's the point made in this passage. He then goes on later in his teaching to talk about loving your neighbour - the person in need whom you have the power to help.
Thirdly, Jesus describes a new command in John 13: 34, where he says, ‘A new command I give you, love one another,’ speaking of the Christian community and disciples. We've got three different categories of love: loving your enemy, loving the person who's needy who you have the power to help - whoever they are, and loving your Christian brothers and sisters in the family of God. Here is a redefinition and a particular focus on undermining the concept in Judaism - that you have the right to separate yourself from, and dislike, and even hate people who are different from yourselves, different from your faith, different race, different religion, different culture. You can't do that as a Christian, says Jesus. No, we're going to be called upon to love our enemies and even to pray for those who persecute you.
Jesus goes on in this passage to tell us that God causes his sun to rise on the righteous and the unrighteous. Many good things God gives to all people whoever they are. God is gracious and loving to all humanity and he gives us many blessings, which theologians call ‘common grace’. He concludes this passage by explaining that, if you're only kind to the people who you know, who are like you, who are on the same wavelength as you, the same faith as you, then you're not really different from anyone else because that's what other people do; that's what Jews do in their religious groups, that's what Buddhists do in their religious groups, that's what Hindus do in their religious groups, that's what Muslims do, that's what pagans do, he said, that's what secular people do in the West, if they get on with people, if they're in social clubs, sports clubs, working environments where they work together, or on the same street. They're kind to each other because they've got a kind of common interest. Jesus said you're no different from those people, if that's all you do. No, you've got to love your enemies, reach out to people who are far away from you relationally and don't like you, or trust you, or want you.
He concludes in verse 48, with a powerful statement that is a conclusion of this passage but it's also a conclusion of all the teaching of the whole chapter, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ What does that word ‘perfect’ mean? The Greek word used in this text has a sense of being ‘complete’ that is ‘being mature in character’. The maturing of character is what all these things are about and these last two sections, the one about not resisting evil people, that we did in the last episode, and this one here that we did about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you, are very challenging examples of the character changes that God needs to bring about in us in order for us to be mature Christian disciples. We're going to face opposition, misunderstanding, even persecution but disciples need to demonstrate real moral qualities of love to people who don't love them. That's a very real challenge. That's a challenge for me, in my situation; it will be a great challenge to many of you, and immediately you'll know the things that this text brings to light in your own experience that are difficult for you. Can I encourage you with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
As we reflect on this text, in conclusion, I want to say this is a radical way of living that Jesus is proposing. It implies incredible miraculous work in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It also implies that God is our protector. If we're not going to be defensive against our enemies and people who are against us, then we need to trust in God. Loving our enemies and praying for our enemies is exactly what Jesus himself did.
The way we can interpret this passage best, is through the example of Jesus. Let me for a moment, draw your attention to Jesus dying on the cross and think about the story of Jesus dying on the cross, as told by the four Gospel writers, which we study in considerable detail later on, in a different series. Jesus, when he was on the cross, when he was dying, prayed for the soldiers and the Roman authorities who were crucifying him with these piercing words, ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. In uttering those words, Jesus is fulfilling exactly what he asks us to do, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ He was praying for the people who were killing him. He was considerate towards his mother and for the thief on the cross - one of the two criminals who was crucified alongside him who showed a great openness to his message and a great humility. He said, ‘Today you'll be with me in Paradise.’ Someone who might have been considered an enemy of Jesus a few weeks ago as a criminal - an outsider - who was expressing a faith at the last minute of his life, Jesus reached out to this past enemy and embraced him into his kingdom and said, ‘Today you'll be with me in Paradise.. I'll die, you'll die, we'll meet in Paradise’. What an amazing example. What Jesus teaches, he lives. We saw that in the previous episode, when we talked about resisting an evil person - not resisting them as Christians. Here we see that Jesus is perfect in his maturity and in his character. He is like his heavenly Father; perfect in love for those who oppose him.
These are very challenging teachings and many Christians have had to face the difficulties implied, by having enemies in their community, governments, other religious groups, other parts of society - really opposed to the Church. Some of you will be in that situation even as I'm speaking to you today. Being able to love your enemies is one of the absolutely defining features of true biblical New Testament Christianity, true following of the implications of the Sermon on the Mount. It's very interesting in the European context, how Christians responded in the period of the Second World War to the Nazi threat. Many nominal Christians in central Europe and in Germany, were not able to offer any significant resistance to the Nazis, with their totalitarianism, their racialism, their anti-Semitism, their institutional violence, and persecution of minorities that they launched viciously across all of central Europe in the areas where they became the rulers. But true Christians followed the path of discipleship. Two examples to give you, as we bring this episode to a conclusion.
There was a German theologian by the name of Dietrich von Bonhoeffer who wrote, in the 1930s, a wonderful book, ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ which is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. It's one of the prized books on my shelf. He knew from an early stage in Germany, that Hitler and the Nazis needed to be resisted by the Christians, in the sense of explaining to the German people that Nazism was contradictory to Christianity. They can't follow the Nazi creed. He was part of a group called ‘the Confessing Church’. He himself, as a result of this, was ultimately imprisoned and executed by the Nazis. He lost his life because he believed that with discipleship, you need to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. He was offered the possibility of staying in Britain, or in America where he'd been visiting and working in the 30s. He chose to go back to Germany and to face a very tough last period of his life, as he opposed the Nazi regime. He gained his ideas from the Sermon on the Mount.
Another moving example, from that era, comes from the famous Dutch Christian, Corrie ten Boom. Her family, in Holland, were devout Christians. They studied the Bible and they took in Jewish people, in order to help them hide from the Nazis, once the German Nazis had invaded Holland. Eventually, the family was discovered to be hiding Jews, and the family members were sent to concentration camps in Germany. Corrie, and her sister Betsy ended up in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, under the control of vicious Nazi guards. She tells a story from the period after the Second World War, where she became a well-known Christian speaker. She entered into a church in Germany and was involved in the service, and was speaking there, and she saw a man coming towards her at the end of the service who she immediately recognised - a German man - who had been a Nazi guard in the concentration camp, in which she was imprisoned with her sister, and in which her sister died. When she saw this man coming towards her, she froze up inside emotionally. All the memories of the persecution and hostility of the Nazis came flooding back, all the ridiculing that the Nazis made of her faith came to her mind, during the interrogations in the concentration camp and she vividly remembered this man as one of her persecutors. But she discovered that he had now become a Christian. He reached out his hand in order that he could shake her hand. She described, in one of her writings, what happened next. It was to do with forgiveness for those who had been enemies and had persecuted her and her sister, her family, and her fellow Dutch Christians, in their campaign to help the Jews. This is what she writes, ‘Forgiveness is not an emotion; forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.’ In that moment, as he reached out to her, she forgave her enemy - someone she'd prayed for before. She forgave him and she reached out her hand and shook his hand, with the words, after he'd asked her to forgive. The words she said were, ‘I forgive you, brother, with all my heart.’ She lived this message: ‘But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Ultimately she triumphed in her forgiveness and in her gracious attitude, even though there was much suffering involved in the process, including the loss of her sister in that concentration camp.
We've reached, the end of Episode 10; we've reached the end of chapter 5; and we've reached the end of the series of teachings of Jesus which are based on re-interpreting the Law of Moses for Christian discipleship where Jesus is explaining how he fulfils the Law of Moses. Chapter 6 goes on with some other very important themes and I look forward to sharing those with you in future episodes. Thanks for listening.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- Who are your neighbours? Is it just the people who live nearby?
- What three types of people does Jesus say we need to love? How hard is this for you, in your situation?
- Pray for the persecuted Church across the world.
- The examples of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie Ten Boom are given. Research these people or think of your own examples of people who have loved their enemies
- How revolutionary was this teaching for Jesus’ followers then - and now?