Love your enemies.
That’s a tall order, but it is exactly what Jesus expects of his followers. In his most famous of sermon’s Jesus lays out a kingdom ethic for his followers. In Matthew 5, he underscores a clear expectation of his disciples: Christians love their enemies. It’s counter intuitive, counter cultural, and seems down right backwards to what common sense would tell us. And yet, that is exactly the ethic we adopt as Christ followers.
Jesus provides this uncommon understanding of how we deal with opposition and hatred, but I think we need to notice why. Jesus does not tell his followers to do this for pragmatic reasons.
Bearing the Family Resemblance
We don’t love our enemies to make them like us. We don’t turn the other cheek because love will somehow destroy their personal hatred toward us. Going the extra mile isn’t a strategy to win an argument or even change someone’s mind. That may happen, but nowhere is any of that suggested in the passage, and it is certainly not our motivation for loving our enemies. In verse 45 Jesus gives us the reason: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Jesus calls us to bear the family resemblance. As Christians, we have been adopted into the family of God, and the Bible tells us in other places that we are being conformed into Christ’s image. In other words, we are being transformed into the image of God’s son. We too are sons and daughters of our heavenly Father, and the motivation behind this counter-cultural lifestyle is not winning friends and influencing people. It is bearing our family resemblance. That is the heartbeat of the testimonial ethic. Of course, a biblical lifestyle must be met with mouths that share the good news. Words are, in fact, necessary in sharing the gospel. But that news may sound hollow indeed if the actions of the one speaking it do not mirror, at least to some small degree, the transformation promised in the message. We live in a way that authenticates the message we’ve been commissioned to share.
Be Perfect, as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect
Jesus finishes the passage by saying, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Those words are an allusion to other passages in the Bible. God says, “Be holy because I am holy.” That command is a central theme of the Bible. It shows up at the front in the Levitical law and we see repeated toward the end by Peter in one of his letters, and it’s scattered out even more between the two. Many people throughout history have pointed out that Jesus’ ethic in the Sermon on the Mount is an impossible standard. “Who can actually live this way?” people have asked. Well, that’s the whole point. Not that we cannot live to such a high standard, but that we cannot do it on our own.
The lifestyle of the kingdom of heaven requires a new heart. There is only one man who has ever followed this ethic perfectly, and he did it so that his work on the cross could serve as the needed sacrifice to fix our own sin problem. Jesus walked this road perfectly, so that he could stand in our place, and provide us with the spiritual life necessary to walk in such a ridiculous calling.
A Testimony of Sacrifice
We never look more like Jesus than when we sacrifice for those who would do evil to us. Living this way is acting out an echo of an event that happened so long ago. Jesus himself turned the other cheek. Roman soldiers cast lots for his coat. He not only walked the extra mile, but he did so carrying the weight of your sins and my sins up to the cross. And he gave, not money, but his life. Keeping that in mind, here these words again: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies.”
Loving your enemies is a message we all need to hear right now. It’s an uncommon ethic. Everyone in our society is dividing up into camps. Everything is an “us” vs. “them” issue now. We demonize the other side. And that fire comes from both corners. But, we must be careful not to miss the point of this passage. In this passage, Jesus is not telling his followers that it is bad they are being treated harshly by their enemies. He is not giving them justification for being mad at the mainstream media. He is telling them to expect it. And he is doing something much more. He is telling them not to return it. He is telling them to respond to the animosity not with animosity in return, but with grace, with love.
“You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16