“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 children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)
Coming on the heels of paying back the oppressors with good, Jesus elaborates.
Within the context Jesus is speaking into, “neighbors” are Jews and “your enemy” are the Gentiles – specifically the Roman ones. As we look into Old Testament law, we see exhortations for the Israelites to love other Israelites. They are the holy people of God, not the rest of the world, and they are to treat each other a certain way as a testimony against the rest of the world.
But here, Jesus makes a bona fide advancement in Israel’s self-understanding. God is not just the God of Israel; He is the God of the whole world and, at some level, deals with all people alike – Jew or Gentile. The God who created the heavens and the earth sends the sunlight for Jews and Gentiles and sends the rain for both as well. This sort of impartiality across lines of Israel and Enemy is something that is to be reflected in the new Israel as a special testimony, whereas partiality among your “tribe” is something that even tax collectors and pagans do.
The new Israel is to be the image of God, which means to look like Him, which means to show consideration not just for Jews, but for the occupying Gentiles.
As a side note, Jesus here says quite directly that God makes the sun rise and God makes it rain, but you don’t hear a lot of fundamentalists railing against the scientific findings about the rotation of the Earth or the water cycle. It’s interesting that we can know scientific, naturalistic explanations of the sun and the rain and it doesn’t bother us at all – we can completely reconcile God being involved. But when it comes to the creation of mankind – watch out!
Anyway, the main point of the story, here, is that the community is supposed to treat outsiders, yea even enemies, with love (which is far more than tolerance) and prayers because God is God over them as well, so reflecting this shows the world whose God is Israel’s Lord.
Jesus spoke into a situation where a strong Us-Them boundary was interfering with the witness of the group. Love Israel, hate the Romans, and you look just like they do and not at all the image of your God.
We have different situations, but it behooves us to think about the groups we think of as Them and whether we are children of our Father in how we treat Them. To love people is not to tolerate their existence; it’s to do good to them, even if they are not doing good to you in return. Is God the God only of Christians, or is He God of the whole world? Does Jesus only have authority in the hearts of believers, or has all authority in heaven and earth been given to him? What do our lives say? What kind of God do we present to those who are not Us?
- Who are the groups of people that Christians tend to think of outsiders or even enemies?
- What does it mean to love those groups above and beyond tolerating their existence?