The Unthinkable Commandment
With every advancing sentence since verse 21, Jesus has taken an ever larger bite out of the human ego. Every new contrast between the popular Pharisaic perversions and the real demand of kingdom righteousness has served to heighten the moral challenge. What the Lord at last commands in the sixth and last of these antitheses must have stunned His audience (Matthew 5:43-48). He has spoken the inconceivable when He said, “but I say to you, love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). To many of His listeners, such counsel must have seemed not only unthinkable, but impossible - and contrary to the very concept of justice.
Now for the first time in the sermon, Jesus has spoken the word which best sums up the principle underlying the whole of His message. He has led His hearers up an ascending plane from what love prohibits in the treatment of others (even those who abuse us) to what love demands of us positively. And who among His audience then or now could have anticipated that the journey would not be finished until He had demanded of them the hardest thing of all - to love the very ones we are most drawn to hate - our enemies. Finally, the Lord has left no room for “self” at all.
“Enemy” was hardly a foreign idea to first-century Jews. By Jesus’ time, there was a palpable enmity that had attached itself to the partitioning wall that was the law (Ephesians 2:14-15). The people of Israel had suffered much from a hostile world and often looked with disdain upon the ignorant paganism and egregious immorality of the Gentiles. The Gentiles were not slow to return the favor. The Pharisees, with their separatist fervor, were not ignorant of the law’s demand that the sons of the covenant were to love their neighbor as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), but they understood that obligation to end at the borders of Israel. There were plenty to hate beyond the pale and many in the nation held that it was not only their privilege, but their obligation to do so. The fact that the Pharisees were aware of the command to love, but floundered on the definition of “neighbor” is evidenced by the conversation with a certain lawyer (Luke 10:25-29). The lawyer knew that formula but was yet to make a proper application.
But how and why did the teachers in Israel come to conclude that the law commanded hatred for the enemy? It might have been the “holy wars” of extermination which God commanded Israel to wage against the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:16-18), or the imprecatory psalms (“Do not I hate them, O Lord, who hate You?... I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies,” (Psalms 139:21-22. Note especially Psalm 109). Yet, however difficult and perplexing be the problems which these facts present, the law did not distinguish in the matter of neighbor love between the Israelite and the stranger (Leviticus 19:18 with 19:33-34), and it did not counsel hatred and vengeance for the enemy (Exodus 23:4-5). Even Job, whose times most likely antedate the law, understood the sin of rejoicing over the calamity of an enemy (Job 31:29-30). It has always impressed me that when Paul sought to instruct his brethren in their treatment of enemies, he felt no need for some new revelation, but drew easily upon the book of Proverbs: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him a drink” (Romans 12:20; Proverbs 25:21). There is no portion of the Old Testament which more directly addresses the problem of Israel’s attitude toward her enemies than the book of Jonah. The Assyrians were a brutal people, enemies of God and men, but Jehovah loved them and He intended that His servant Jonah should do the same (Jonah 4:9-11).
Still, if after all this, we find ourselves hard pressed to believe that the law did not counsel enmity toward enemies, we are left to trust the Son of God who rebukes this idea as a misconception of the law and wholly inconsistent with the nature and purpose of God. It was just such teaching as this that made the nation so unprepared for the coming of the peaceable kingdom. Had Jesus told His followers to love their “neighbors,” they might well have continued in the old narrow ways, missing completely this love’s unique nature. But when He teaches them to love their enemies, they may be startled but they will certainly be instructed. As Kierkegaard has observed, the gospel has made it forever impossible for anyone to be mistaken about the identity of his neighbor. If we are to love our enemies, then there will certainly be no member of the human race, however different, however distant, however vile, to which we will not owe the best we can give him.