You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is 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 do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.Matthew 5:43-45
Jesus has already mentioned that hatred towards your brother is the equivalent of murder borne in the heart. However, here He revisits hatred and moves from hatred towards someone with whom you are bound to in a covenant relationship to someone that is outside of that intimate relationship. In fact, He says that we ought to not only love our neighbor but to also love those who actively seek to destroy us.
For the fourth time, Jesus shifts the topic of His message to contrast the heart of the Mosaic law to the traditional practice found in non-Scriptural sources. “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” The Kingdom law of the Moses dictated that you shall “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Period. There is no additional commentary beyond this. In fact, Jesus said in another episode “The second [greatest commandment] is [like] this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The first greatest commandment of course is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart (kardias – affection) and with all your soul (psuche – life force) and with all your mind (dianoia – will) and with all your strength (ischus – physical strength).” (Mark 12:31, Greek commentary mine)
In fact, the transitional phrase “The second is [like] this…” is can literally be translated as “In the same manner, the second greatest commandment is…”. In other words, just as we are commanded to love God with every bit of the essence of our being – our emotional affections, our life, our will, and our physical capacity – we are commanded to love other people. Jesus makes no distinction here between friend or foe. He makes no distinction between brother, sister, or stranger. Put simply, the entirely of the law is summed up in four words “Love God. Love people.” Anything less than these two simple statements is sin.
Now in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does address the nature of two different types of relationship. He addressed the nature of hatred towards a brother / sister – someone with whom you have an intimate relationship, but harbor resentment and unwarranted anger towards. Then He takes it a step further and commands that we love our enemies – those who actively seek to harm and abuse us. Those who seek to take advantage of us. Those who seek to spitefully use us for their own selfish gain.
Furthermore, He contrasts the difference between those who would follow His teaching with those who are not His followers: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” The tax collectors of Jesus’ day were despised as traitors because they were often Jewish citizens who submitted to the authority of Rome and were often known to take advantage of the taxpayers. It’s easy to greet those that are you friends, but far more difficult to greet those that are your enemies and make them feel at home. Even the cultural outsiders love those that love them. Emotional love is easy, but love that transcends emotion often requires a difficult act of the will.
A personal spiritual hero of mine is Corrie ten Boom. She and her family were arrested by the Nazis during World War II for hiding Jews in a secret room carved into the wall of her own bedroom. She and her sister Betsy were sent to Ravensbruck prison camp – or more literally, a death camp. Together, they would endure the hardship of the harsh treatment of their Nazi captors and even the jeering and mocking of their fellow prisoners. More importantly, in spite of their circumstances, and much to Corrie’s own consternation, Betsy would choose to love her fellow captors in spite of their mockery. The last thing that Betsy would tell Corrie before she would succumb to typhus were two simple words: “Don’t hate.”
Corrie would take these words and they would go on to transform her life. In the midst of her mourning, she would encourage her fellow prisoners until one night her named was called out. Shaking in fear, believing that she was on her way to die, she bravely declared the gospel of love to her fellow captors. She gave her smuggled Bible to one of her fellow prisoners and encouraged her to cling to it. Within a few hours, Corrie was on her way home – released due to an apparent “clerical error”, when all women prisoners her age were sent to the gas chambers just 2 weeks later.
Until her dying day, Corrie would travel the world teaching about the grace and love of God and teaching us all to love our enemies. She even had an opportunity to put this teaching into practice as one of her tormentors approached her after one of her teachings and declared their newfound faith and begged her forgiveness for her treatment in Ravensbruck. Corrie, pushing back the tears and anger and bitterness, extended her hand in grace and love towards this former prison guard, recognizing that they themselves had been a prisoner of their own guilt and released them to the freedom of grace.
Corrie’s mission in life was to deliver a very simple message, delivered to her by her dying sister Betsy: “There is no pit so deep that God’s love isn’t deeper still.”1 No matter how dark your world may be, or how strong your enemy comes against you, God is capable of giving you the strength to love them and set them free from the chains that bind their hearts. Grace transforms the heart in ways that set us apart from the world. Grace makes all the difference.
- Corrie ten Boom, Elizabeth Sherrill, John Sherrill (1971). The Hiding Place. Guideposts Associates. ISBN 0-912376-01-5.