You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:43-48)
You have heard that it was said. Diving right in and thinking of today’s cultural climate, what things have we heard said? Are we blindly taking those things in as truth because they come from leaders or news sources or people whose thoughts align with ours? Do those things line up with what Jesus has said? Is what we have heard said leading us to be more like Jesus?
When God laid this Sermon on the Mount series on Pastor John’s heart we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic. We weren’t being asked to wear masks and social distance, and it’s been years since we (as an entire culture) have been so blatantly exposed to what ongoing and systemic racism looks like. We’re learning whether or not our personal values lie more on the side of individualism and our rights, or on the common good even if I have to sacrifice a little–more on the side of “me first” or community. Pastor John was preparing for this series before all of this happened. He has remained faithful to preaching the series God laid on his heart–and wow–is it ever what we need to be wrestling with. If we will listen, if we will wrestle, if we will go deep, this could be the recalibration that the people of God so desperately need.
The words of Jesus in this week’s passage pack a punch.
You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ but I tell you, love your enemies…
Just like the other “you have heard it said’ statements we’ve studied, hating your enemy is what the Jewish people had been taught. Where did this teaching come from? How did it begin? In Leviticus 19:18 the Israelites were instructed not to seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. They inferred, therefore, that they were supposed to love their own people–they could hate everyone else.
Jesus corrects this teaching not only in today’s passage but also in Luke 10 when he is asked by an expert in Jewish law what is required to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer, What is written in the Law?… How do you read it? (v.26) .
The Lawyer responds: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (27)
Jesus tells him that he’s correct and encourages him to live that way. The Lawyer then asks Jesus–Who is my neighbor?
Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan. To the Jewish people, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. However, as we know from the parable, the beaten and robbed man was passed by and ignored by a priest and a Levite, yet he was lavishly ministered to by a compassionate Samaritan man. At the end of the story, Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? (36)
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (37)
The Good Samaritan was a radical, shocking example of who constitutes a neighbor, and Jesus was being very intentional. He speaks a similar way in this portion of his sermon to expose and lay bare the superior self-righteousness of the crowd by saying: If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
Loving “your people” and hating everyone else is not the way the kingdom of heaven on earth is to function–AND it’s not the way God functions.
Jesus points this out when he says: He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. In other words, God is not picking favorites. God loves the whole world. Jesus came to save the whole world. His followers are to take God’s love and kingdom life to the whole world.
Loving “our people”, thinking more highly of “our people” might be the way of the world, but it’s not the way of God. As a matter of fact, if we look at the kingdom on earth that Jesus was establishing, and if we look at the early church ushering in the kingdom, people from all different walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, social status, and other humanly separated categories were together as part of it. The Apostle Paul makes this clear and encourages us to unify around Jesus. Jesus invites everyone from everywhere to his table. In his own ministry, we see him with Jew, Gentile, women, men, Romans, Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, rich, poor, sick, healthy–everyone was welcome. What happened?
It is rare for today’s churches to look this diverse; however, I can think of one church in Queens, New York that looks this way. My husband and I attended a conference there a number of years ago. The church is in a very diverse part of Queens and had people from many different countries represented in their congregation. Pastor Pete Scazzero shared that for that type of church to work, each person has to be responsible to separate their culture (whether it be family culture or nationality) from the culture of Jesus. No one’s culture gets to trump another’s culture–they seek to unify around Jesus and the culture of his kingdom. Pastor Scazzero acknowledged that sometimes it’s messy, but isn’t the kingdom of heaven on earth worth the mess? Isn’t learning to listen, seeking to understand, and loving one another worth some wrestling? Isn’t getting rid of labels and categories and treating all others as equals a worthy pursuit? Isn’t joining arms and working together for the flourishing of all humankind the way of being in the kingdom of God?
When Jesus says pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.…he nods back to two of the beatitudes from the first part of his sermon:
- Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
I read the beatitudes almost every morning during my prayer time and cringe at the persecuted part every time. Sadly, sometimes being a peacemaker is what leads to persecution. Peacemakers and peace-keepers are very different. Peace-keepers maintain a false appearance of peace on the surface. Peacemakers address hard issues–peacemakers go to the core of the matter, exposing what’s in the dark and bringing it to the light so that it can be seen and resolved. Peacemakers are oftentimes persecuted–just ask Jesus. But in the end, the peacemakers and the persecuted are called children of God and they live where God reigns.
Pastor John pointed out that Jesus says love your enemies, pray for them to be blessed, but we relish in the secret scorn we have for others. Ouch! He said: It’s not enough to do just enough. That won’t change the world. Do more! Be different. Love more. Stop retaliating. Check your secret scorn. He reminded us that our social media presence and “likes” reveal a great deal about what matters to us. And he reminded us that the current cultural and global crisis is showing us our true character. Do we like what we see?
Think about it; who would your enemy be? Who receives your secret scorn? If Jesus were telling you the story of the good Samaritan who would shock you? The good Muslim? The good Democrat? The good Republican? The good African-American? The good white person? The good gay man? The good transgender woman? The good immigrant? The good _______________?
If we love only those who are like us, that’s what the whole world does. Jesus says–do more, love others like I love you. He teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy– everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Whew! Hard stuff!!
And then Jesus says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. What?!! How?!!
Be–not do. God is perfectly who God is. Be perfectly who God created you to be living for the things that matter to God’s heart. Be whole. Be Christlike. Be Spirit-filled. Be for the flourishing of all. Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world.
I will start where Luanne left off and we’ll work our way backwards a bit. She left us with the words, “Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. “
Sometimes, to see a more expansive picture of the things Jesus spoke about, it is helpful to look at more than one of the gospels… In Luke 6:36, we read:
“Be merciful (responsive, compassionate, tender) just as your [heavenly] Father is merciful.” (AMP)
Brian Zahnd expounds on this verse, in a blog post titled Oh, Mercy. He writes,
“The Gospel writers use different words.
What Jesus in Matthew calls perfection, Jesus in Luke calls mercy.
This is significant and instructive. Luke’s use of “mercy” gives us an inspired commentary on Matthew’s “perfect.”
First of all, Matthew’s “perfect” is the Greek telos; i.e. goal.
Put the two together and you will understand what God is like and what our goal is to be.
God is perfect in mercy. This is what we are called to imitate.
The goal (telos) for the disciple of Jesus is to be merciful like God is merciful.
The perfection God is looking for is not the unattainable perfection of flawlessness—But the fully attainable perfection of extending mercy to those who are flawed.”
This perspective is corroborated in the story of the Good Samaritan that Luanne wrote about above. After Jesus shared the story in response to the question Who is my neighbor?, he asked his own question to make sure the lawyer understood.
Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
To see everyone as a neighbor and no one as an enemy, to show mercy to the flawed, to love those who hate–this is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. God sees none of his children as enemies. Not in the way we understand what an “enemy” is, anyway. God is Love. He loves perfectly. We were created in the image of God with the capacity to love beyond our humanity. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.
So, is Jesus really teaching that we have no enemies? Yes. I believe he is teaching exactly that. He is, once again, turning their understanding upside-down and deepening their capacity to live according to the ways of his kingdom. Luanne wrote:
He [Jesus] teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy–everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
But wait… In Ephesians 6, Paul tells us plainly that we do have enemies, right? Yes. This is what he has to say on the matter:
For our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil.
(Ephesians 6:12, J.B. Phillips, emphasis mine)
Evil is real. It exists all around us. The spirit of evil–the spirit that is anti-Christ, that stands against the Spirit of God–infiltrates powers and structures in our world. But people are not our enemies. People–all people--are our neighbors. Jesus wants his listeners to really understand this concept because it sets his kingdom apart from any other. In his kingdom, there are no outsiders. There is no us versus them. There are only neighbors.
Remember the crowd he was speaking to… It was incredibly diverse. The words he spoke weren’t hypothetical, or for some future moment or encounter they might have. No. The crowds Matthew wrote about were full of people who didn’t naturally mingle.
Again, Brian Zahnd, in one of his own sermons (Pastor Brian has a lot of great things to say about the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes; it’s one of his favorite things to talk about!), said this regarding the crowd:
“…The crowds, they came from Galilee, they came from from Decapolis, they came from Jerusalem, Judea… That tells us–if we know the history and the geography–that a mixed multitude of Jews and Gentiles were gathering to Jesus. All kinds of people… The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”
To this crowd, Jesus said… Love those who are not your people. All they had to do to practically apply his words was look around. They were surrounded by “others” who were likely easy for them to hate. It was a mixed crowd, full of people who didn’t look like one another, think like one another, dress like one another, believe like one another. They were likely from all different income brackets. They did not all have the same culture, music, or food in common. They probably didn’t agree about politics, as they represented many different regions. But they were all attracted to Jesus and to this kingdom he kept talking about. So they gathered together and listened to hard teachings, teachings that challenge us today in the same ways they challenged his first hearers.
I want to reiterate the last line I quoted from Pastor Brian above:
“The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”
All kinds of people were attracted to Jesus and his kingdom when he walked the earth enfleshed in humanity. Friends, do you know how Jesus walks the earth today? Enfleshed in our humanity. We, the followers of Christ, are to embody his kingdom, all that he is. Are all kinds of people attracted to the Jesus they see in us? Do we live from the kingdom he brought to earth? Do we see all people as our neighbors, bearing the image of the Divine, same as us? Or do we live from a different kingdom, one that spews hate and violence, one that separates, divides, judges, and condemns? Do we understand that our only enemy is the spirit of evil, or do we make enemies of our flesh-and-blood neighbors? Is the whole spectrum of humanity attracted to the Jesus they see in us, those who call ourselves his followers? Is there a seat at the table for ALL? Or does our secret scorn lead us to arrogant exclusion that values some more highly than others?
These questions are hard. The ways of Jesus’ kingdom are demanding. Will we have the courage to let his words mess in our business and show us where we’ve made enemies of neighbors? Will we have the courage to then repent, to change our minds and then our actions, as Pastor Beau talked to us about last week? Will we let the Spirit lead us in the way of love? I pray that each of us as individuals and the Church as a whole will choose to answer “yes” to these questions. Because, here’s what’s true: The whole spectrum of humanity will always be attracted to the real Jesus, but sometimes, his followers get in the way.