Commentary on Matthew 5:43-48
We come to the last of the six examples that Jesus gave as illustrations of how he brings the teaching of the Law to a higher and more perfect plane.
The saying that Jesus uses today, “You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy”, is not found as such in the Hebrew Testament. Rather we find in the book of Leviticus where it says, “You must not exact vengeance, nor must you bear a grudge against the children of your people. You must love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The wording here would seem to condone, however, acts of revenge against strangers and outsiders. And, in practice, as indeed is the case in many communities throughout the world, the saying of Jesus reflects the way many people feel is a justified way of acting. And, as we saw earlier on where Jesus spoke about anger, at least limited revenge was condoned in the phrase ‘an eye for an eye…’.
Again, Jesus turns things on their head with a saying which many people would find quite unrealistic, if not downright stupid. He tells us actually to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. How can we be asked to do such a thing?
Yet, if we would only reflect a little, the advice of Jesus makes a great deal of sense and, in fact, is really the only way to go for our own happiness and peace. Otherwise, as Jesus says, his listeners were no different from ‘tax collectors’, a group who, because they worked for the occupying power, were held in special contempt, or pagans, that is, people who lived God-less lives.
To understand what Jesus is saying we need to clarify two words, ‘love’ and ‘enemies’.
Who are our enemies? They can either be the people that we are hostile towards or the people who are hostile to us. The practising Christian who takes on board the teaching of Jesus will want to have positive attitudes to people in general and will not marginalise anyone on the basis of race, nationality, colour, class, gender or whatever. Such a person will not want to act in a way unnecessarily to create hostility in others. However, simply because we try to look and act positively towards others is no guarantee that they will act in the same way towards us. Through no objective fault of our own, we may become the object of their dislike, resentment, hatred, jealousy, anger and even violence. These are our enemies. And we are to love them.
What does ‘love’ mean here? The word that the gospel uses is a verb from the noun agape (‘agaph) . Agape is a unilateral way of loving by which, irrespective of the actions or attitudes of another person, I desire their well-being. It is the love which God extends to every one of his creatures, irrespective of how they respond to him. In this it is quite different from the love which involves sharing, intimacy, affection and a strong element of mutual giving.
We are not being asked to love our enemies with the love of affection, to be in love with them or to be fond of them. That would not make sense and they would not want it. But we are asked to reach out and desire their well-being. This can be done when we focus our attention and our concern more on them than on ourselves.
When we are the objects of other people’s hostility we tend to go on the defensive and to generate negative attitudes towards the other. Our inner security (or insecurity) is under attack. Jesus is asking us rather to respond to the real situation rather than to react to spontaneous feelings.
When someone hates me, attacks me, is angry with me for no reason that I can think of, instead of feeling sorry for myself, I will reach out and ask, “What is wrong with that person? Why is that person acting in that way? What is bothering that person? Is there any way I can help to dissolve this person’s negative behaviour which is probably a sign of some inner self-hating or insecurity on their part?”
And certainly when I begin to think in this way, it becomes perfectly natural to pray for that person, to pray for their inner healing, for a restoration of peace and inner security. To hate someone who hates me, to be violent with someone who is violent with me, simply means that there are twice as many problems as there were at the beginning. By responding in the way that Jesus suggests, we end up with no problem at all!
And Jesus gives us another motive for acting in this way: it is the way God himself acts. He causes the hot, merciless sun to shine on the good as well as the bad; the cool, refreshing rain falls equally on the bad as well as the good. What Jesus is saying is that God’s love, his agape, reaches out indiscriminately to every single person, irrespective of their behaviour.
“You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfection here refers to that unconditional agape that God extends to every single person. If we are to grow into the likeness of God and give witness to his presence in the world, we need to act in exactly the same way. And wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if people followed Jesus’ advice? Far from being impractical, it is the only way to go.