According to Jesus, the Scribes taught the people to love their neighbor but to hate their enemy. In this instance they were not quoting Scripture but added their own views to a Scriptural teaching. The Old Testament had indeed instructed the people to love their neighbor but it did not teach them to hate their enemy. To the Scribes this apparently seemed to follow naturally. The fact is that the Old Testament taught the people that they should not hate their enemies (Cf. Proverbs 25:21).
At the time of our Lord’s ministry it was still a question in the minds of many who a man’s neighbor actually was. The prevailing idea was that only Jews could be their neighbors. In this section, however, it seems as though the word had an even more restricted meaning. Jesus speaks of those who persecute you. These could also be Jews. Hence, members of the same nation might be enemies. This makes the term “neighbor” very restricted. Jesus teaches later, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who a man’s neighbor is. This idea was totally foreign to the minds of the Jewish teachers. No wonder the Jews of Jesus’ day could stoop to the level they did at the time of his trial and death! Although they still paid lip-service to the law of God, they had made the law of no effect by their misinterpretations.
Jesus again teaches the very opposite of the teaching current among the Jews. “Love your enemies.” This may be difficult, but it is the demand of the law and must characterize the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. “Pray for them that persecute you.” May God’s people never withstand those who persecute them? Of course; but when they are alone with their God they will remember these persecutors in prayer. The Christian Jews of a later date fled before the persecution of Saul of Tarsus. However, their prayers were answered when this persecutor bowed the knee before the Christ and became the greatest witness to the Gospel. You may not hate those who persecute you; you must pray for their salvation.
These things are to be observed in order that we may be sons of our Father who is in heaven. This does not mean that by loving our enemies we become sons of God. Then salvation would be earned. It means that when we love our enemies we then show that we are the sons of God. We begin to look like him. We begin to act as he does. That this is the true interpretation is evident from the words that follow. “For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” You are to love your enemies. Why? Because God does! God makes no distinctions between men in the bestowal of his natural blessings. The wicked receive the good things as well as the righteous. No one may set a limit to the love of God! That love is infinite. It may be difficult for us to understand how God can send his blessings on those who do not taste of his redemptive love. The Bible tells us that that is exactly what
he does. Let no one say, “God cannot give his blessings to the wicked.” If we say that these are not real blessings, we have robbed this passage of its essential meaning. We are to love our enemies. Is that impossible? No, God himself has shown us the way. We are his sons and he will give grace so that we will live as children of the Most High.
The life of the believer is to be clearly distinguished from the life of the unbeliever. If it were the intention of the law of God to teach that we are to love our neighbors and hate our enemies, all men could subscribe to it. That is not teaching which elevates. That is teaching neither true religion nor true morality. The heart of the law has been removed if the teaching of the Scribes is correct. Jesus makes this very plain when he tells the people that publicans and Gentiles would agree with the teaching of the Scribes. More is required of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. It is an easy matter to love those who love us. It is easy enough to salute those who are brethren. Wherever men dwell one will find them doing these things.
The spiritual nature of Jesus’ teaching of the law here again hinges on the meaning of the concept neighbor. Who is my neighbor? He may be your enemy! Those whom God has placed on our path, though they oppose us in various ways, are our neighbors. These we must love. If we do not love them, we shall have no reward. When Jesus here speaks of a “reward” he does not mean something which we have earned. Loving our enemies by itself does not earn salvation for us. Yet, there is a divine reward for obedience. However, this is not a reward of merit, but of grace.
The concluding verse of this section, “Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” has been interpreted in various ways. Some believe that Jesus here teaches Perfectionism. Others believe that he is teaching that there can be no Perfectionism because he has clearly shown the impossibility of living up to his demands. Some believe that this concluding statement summarizes all that he has said in the verses 21–48. We hold that it summarizes only that which is contained in the verses 43·48. Jesus has spoken of the love which the believer must show his fellow-man. The question raised was, Whom must he love among his fellow-men? Jesus says, even your enemies; and he uses the love of Cod for all men as an illustration. Your love should not be limited. It must be perfect. The parallel passage in Luke reads: “Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Your love must be patterned after the love of God—it must be perfect. That you love your fellow.man does not mean that you should condone all he does. God will maintain his righteousness. That is also the way you must love. You may have to tell your persecutor to his face that the road he is traveling will lead to perdition. You will plead with him to turn from his evil way. You will show him that he is walking contrary to the law of God. But, when you are alone with your Maker you will pray for your enemy. You must be like God who, though he maintains his justice, still upholds and sustains his enemies.
Questions For Discussion
1. Why did the Scribes teach the people to hate their enemies seeing this is not prescribed in the Old Testament?
2. Are we to love all men in tile same degree? If not, how do you understand the words to love your neighbor “as thyself”’?
3. When God sends rain and sunshine to unbelievers, are these blessings for them?
4. Was the Psalmist going contrary to the teaching of Jesus when he wrote the imprecatory Psalms?
5. How can one love the sinner and still hate his sin?
6. Does the term “perfect” always have the same meaning in Scripture?