Matthew 5:43-48 – Love Your Enemies

How do we hold a benevolent wish of goodwill for ALL of mankind?

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that 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. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And now we come to the crowd-control portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s really quite a brilliant speech, structurally, let alone it’s actual message.  Jesus just spent over 40 verses (I know, he didn’t actually talk in verses, but that’s how they’ve since been recorded) recognizing those who have traditionally lacked agency in society:  The poor and meek, those that hunger for righteousness, women, slaves, anyone who has taken issue with the Pharisees.  By acknowledging them and their plight Jesus got their attention.  They’re probably getting a little riled up, seeing a Rabbi (a person of some position) who is willing to take up for them, and beginning to ponder the possibilities of what that might mean.  I’d be like, yes, finally, here’s a guy who gets it.  Now, what establishment are we going to go tear down first?

Then this pivot to love your enemies.  It makes the crowd a little more introspective, turns their attentions to their own hearts and calms some of the “let’s-go-show-’em” attitude that might have been building up.  And it sets an introspective mood for the second half of the Sermon on the Mount which we’ll start examining next post, which deals more with one’s secret heart only God can see.

But this well-placed crowd control isn’t without its virtues.  It is a reminder we still need to hear today, perhaps particularly today.  It would be really easy to write a blog post today validating my own viewpoint, spending 500 words or so bashing conservative viewpoints and admonishing them to love their enemy. While I think those people definitely need a reminder about loving their enemies, Jesus is asking me to love my enemies, not go out and convince my enemies to love me.  Over the past two weeks, I’ve been harboring a lot of anger over the restrictive abortion bills that have been passed, as have a lot of us.  And yes, I do feel under attack, and like these lawmakers are my enemy.  I don’t really feel like loving any of them.  I’m guessing you don’t either.  So don’t worry, no one, least of all Jesus, is asking you to go give them a hug.  What he is asking for is a peaceful, constructive way forward.

A word or two on translation may help, here.  Again, I’m no ancient language scholar, so I’m taking this on faith in others’ translations:  There are two particular words that make a difference here.  First, the word for “love” used here is “agape,” which if you are a church going person, you may have heard before.  Agape is different than “philios” (which, as you might have guessed, means brotherly love) and certainly isn’t “eros” (romantic love).  “Agape” love is an all-inclusive love.  A love of everything, if you will.  It is an overarching wish for benevolence and goodwill.  That sounds super hard to attain, but I think it’s actually something we’ve all experienced.  Have you ever just had a really good day?  It might be hard to pinpoint what exactly makes it so great, but you’re just really happy and feel like spreading that happy around?  Perhaps you’re extra-smiley to people in cross-traffic, chat with the checkout clerk, and give you’re partner an extra kiss because you’re just happy that you all are both there in the same place at the same time.  I think this is Agape love.  Now, holding onto that feeling may be hard, because there is a lot that can come in and derail it (like a speeding ticket, or an obnoxious customer in front of you, or your partner bringing up *that* sore subject again), but you know the feeling I’m talking about, right?

Second, “perfect.”  The word is “teleios,” and can also be translated to “whole,” or “complete,” which I think is a much better translation.  Jesus isn’t asking us to be perfect, because come on, he knows we’re human, right? He’s asking us to be all-inclusive.  We need to love everyone.  That means people that aren’t our race, or religion, or nationality.  That means sexual minorities, poor people, that annoying coworker who just won’t stop talking and that nosey neighbor who let’s you know the minute your grass gets above two inches high….and the Alabama congressmen who passed the abortion law last week.

So how do we “agape” in a “teleios” manner?  How do we hold a benevolent wish of goodwill for all of mankind?  Practice.  I think agape love is a practice kind of like forgiveness: it’s an ongoing learning process in which we might sometimes fall of the wagon, but we have to keep trying, we can’t just one-and-done it.  Just keep practicing, and we’ll get better at it.

But what TF to practice?  “Love thy enemies” is ripe for saccharine platitudes that just paper over the hurts caused by said enemies, allowing those that hold the power to keep trampling over the rights of those that don’t.  Unfortunately nothing is nearly as satisfying as the realization that Jesus is actually telling us to take a stand when he says to turn the other cheek, but there are a few things that we can do that will help.

Praying, for one.  I know, that sounds like the most saccharine of all. “Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers” are the empty words used after every school shooting that just make my blood boil.  But again, if we view agape love like we view forgiveness, it is just as much (if not more so) for ourselves as it is for our enemies.  When we pray for our enemies, we change ourselves into better people, not to mention set a good example for our kids, our enemies’ kids, and anyone else who might be watching.  Make it a selfish prayer: “God, I hate this person and I do not want to.  Please help me find a way to find love in my heart for them.”

Also, remembering them as human helps, too.  Actually, I’ve become a lot better at this part since becoming a mom.  Remember that even the most abhorrent person was once a child, once a baby, helps frame them as just another part of the system that raised them, not an evil monster.  That doesn’t mean we can’t vehemently oppose whatever heinous things they do, or even advocate for fair retributions, but realizing that they are human, too, helps in our own practice of agape love.

Pivoting the focus away from a person and back towards the issue can take a lot of heat out of things.  This is tricky, and I’ll be honest, as a middle-class white woman I’m uncomfortable writing about it.  So let me just come out and say, I’m not telling anyone not to be angry.  I’m not telling anyone to “calm down.”  There is a time and place for anger, for strong language, for sweeping movements and statements.  If you are oppressed, use those tools.  But if you’re just angry, especially if you’re in a place of privilege, leave those tools for those who really need it.  As my mama always taught me, you’ll catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.  Whenever possible, focus on the issue and don’t make things personal.  You’ll look like the bigger person and I guarantee that will win you points in the long run.

Finally, show compassion. To your friends, to you enemies, to everyone you possibly can.  It’s the best way to lead by example and help be a positive change in the world.  It is  hard to hate someone offering only love.  Sure, there will be people that manage to harbor that hate, but there will be others who let it go.  Again, think of your enemies’ kids:  What better victory would it be to win them over?  And it’s happening.  Take acceptance of gay marriage for example.  According to the Pew Research Center, in 2004, 60% of Americans disapproved of gay marriage.  In 2019, 61% now approve of gay marriage.  In the time it takes for one generation to come of age, that flip has happened.  Yes, there were people who fought vehemently for that change, but you know what I think was the most deciding factor in this change of opinion?  Compassion, or lack thereof.  I think people, particularly young people, saw the nasty vitriol with which many conservative leaders were attacking gay rights (mostly in words, but sometimes in deeds), and saw the love and acceptance that gay rights advocates were upholding, and the choice was clear – go with the love.

It is hard, and even disheartening, to be asked to love our enemies when they are spewing so much hatred.  But their hatred is exactly why we have to keep loving them.  We will “win” in the long run if we do so, as I hope the example above illustrated.  Keep protesting, keep speaking your truth, keep advocating for those who can’t.  But remember that the world is watching, and will judge our actions towards our enemies just as much as they judge our enemies’ actions.  Let’s make those actions compassionate and loving.  Doing so, we will win.

Matthew 5:17-20 – The Fulfillment of the Law

Our inner hearts are more important than the external law.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Oh, what a tricky little bit of scripture.  Should we still be following Levitical law? Eschewing meat cooked with milk (bye-bye, cheeseburgers!) and not wearing cloth woven of two threads?  According to some, yes, and a surface reading of this passage would imply so.  But there are two important things to remember: One, Jesus tended to use hyperbole.  Two, in the same breath Jesus uses to reinforce the primacy of Old Testament law, he jabs at the Pharisees and their externalist approach to said law.

Is this an example of Jesus’ using hyperbole?  There’s no way to know for sure, but the use of absolutes hints at it.  A relatable example I found was when a teenager tells his parents that “everyone” is going to be at the party.  Is that true? Is the whole world going to be at that party? Of course not, but we understand that figure of speech.  So when Jesus speaks of the littlest letter and the least stroke of the pen, it’s a good hint that perhaps this is an example of hyperbole.

I love the tongue-in-cheek comment about the Pharisees.  The sarcasm is just dripping off that last verse.  Time and again Jesus comes after the Pharisees and their false piety – one that has them following the letter of the law (see what I did there???) but not the spirit of it.  The righteousness of the Pharisees was only for show.  Jesus knocks them again in a few verses for being overly dramatic with their fasting, walking through the streets purposely disheveled with ashes on their head, and urges his followers to instead “oil their beards” so that only God would know they are fasting, and thus reward their secret hearts.

I do believe that much of the Old Testament still holds true, but it’s application may change over time.  My favorite illustration of this is the cleansing of mold from houses.  This is a twenty verse discourse in Leviticus.  Mold was (and still is) a real problem in buildings, and can cause serious health problems.  People in the time of Moses, when this law was written, did not have access to modern-day chemicals and the mold-killing household cleaners that we do.  Hence intricate steps needed to be taken to isolate the mold, determine if it was dangerous or spreading, and then deal with it by literally removing parts of the house if necessary.  Then there was a cleansing ceremony involving a dead and live bird, some scarlet string, hyssop, and cedar.  Dealing with pervasive mold in houses can still be an ordeal today, but not many people would say it requires the use of a priest, a religious ceremony, and animal sacrifice.  Especially if the mold is on the outside, a good power-washing will usually do the trick.

Are we in violation of the law Jesus talks about because we power-washed the house instead of getting the local pastor to swing by and take a look?  I seriously doubt it.  God is most concerned with our inner hearts, and how the law informs our spirit.  Sitting in the same seat on the subway where a menstruating woman just sat won’t jeopardize your salvation. (Check out Leviticus 15:19-21) Also, we don’t need to cut off a woman’s hand to save her soul if she grabs an assailant’s genitals while defending herself or her family (Deuteronomy 25:11-12) What really matters is if we are kind to our neighbors, giving to the needy, and prayerful in our decisions.  The law, both that which Jesus gave us and the law of the Old Testament, when read with a discerning eye, can inform us in that.

Matthew 5:13-16 – Salt and Light

A call to help others fully realize their own best selves.

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

In other words, we are to bring flavor and brightness to the world.  It’s not exactly “let your freak flag fly,” but I do think Jesus would appreciate the diversity of people in the world fully expressing themselves.  Can’t you just imagine Jesus hanging out at the local library for Drag Queen Story Hour, blessing all the children and those spreading love and acceptance?

But life isn’t one big Mardi Gras parade.  While I truly believe this passage is saying to not hide your light but to let it shine; to bring your own unique flavor to the world – this passage calls us to go far beyond just personal self expression.  It calls us to help others to fully realize their own best selves, too.  This can mean lots of things, but most of all it means activism.  It means supporting girls’ and womens’ education in places where they are not currently given those opportunities.  It means allowing refugees easier access to our country, so they can escape oppression and make safer and better lives for themselves.  It means Autism Acceptance, an Autistic-led movement to counter basic awareness, that allows for full expression of Autistic behavior (in a safe way) and participation in society.  Maybe it even means Universal Basic Income – a concept I’ll admit I have not researched much but one that does hold immediate appeal.

Yes, go be that City on the Hill.  Stand up for what you believe in, especially if you are in a place of privilege – because for many, it is too dangerous for them to go to school, express their love, or even just walk down the street.  We all need to work together to make this world as bright and flavorful as it can be.