Verses 43 and 44 begin with Jesus stating a cultural norm and then giving a new standard to be used instead. “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” (verses 43-44). I believe every person, Christians and non-Christians alike, practice the first part of this verse. It’s very easy to love people who give us tangible reasons for doing so. It is very hard to love those who persecute us and oppose us. Forget about love, it’s hard to even be in the same room with those people at times! Yet we should look to Jesus for how to practice this commandment. Jesus called a disciple who would betray him to the Pharisees. Imagine that. Knowing that you were going to spend years alongside someone who was going to betray you. Yet Jesus did this, and I can’t imagine he treated Judas Iscariot differently than he did his other disciples. I don’t want to put words in Jesus’s mouth, but I really believe Jesus loved Judas even though he knew that Judas would end up selling Jesus out for silver. And think about all the Pharisees who constantly tried to trick and deceive Jesus during his ministry. Jesus was frustrated with them for sure. But he loved them nonetheless. In 1st John, John states that whoever hates his brother “is still in darkness” (1st John 2:9). Jesus never said that it would be easy to love our enemies, yet if we harbor hate for our enemies and not love, we are failing Jesus as servants and need to truly examine our hearts. By looking to Christ as an example, our hearts will be softened and we will learn to love people instead of hating them.
Verse 45 provides us with a reason to love people unconditionally, whether they be foe or friend. “….so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (verse 45). What is the reward for loving our enemies and praying for them? We will be sons of God. And sons of God who mirror their heavenly Father don’t distinguish between those that they love; rather, they love people unconditionally regardless of how they feel about those people. I’ve always hated the idea of karma. I love how Jesus says that the sun rises on people regardless of whether they are good are evil. God loves everyone, and he even provides rain for those who don’t choose Him. Just as God chooses to love people unconditionally, we too as sons of God must choose to love people in the same manner, and honor God by choosing to follow His perfect example.
I love the way the next verse is written because while God loves everyone, he clearly wants us as Christians to do things differently than everyone else. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same?” (Verse 46). This must have been a tough verse for Matthew to write! Not very flattering to have your profession listed as an example for bad behavior. Yet I think hearing this probably gave Matthew some perspective. Jesus was trying to make the point that everyone’s view on love was relative and fell far short of God’s standard. Verse 47 states many of the same sentiments as verse 46, saying that even Gentiles greet those they love. So if our own relative ideas of love aren’t enough, what are we to do? Verse 48 tells us, and does a wonderful job wrapping up chapter 5. “You must therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (verse 48). This verse may seem impossible to follow, but Jesus gives us a strategy for how we are to accomplish this. We aren’t perfect as humans. Not even close. And we will frequently fall short of God’s standard. But the wonderful thing about Christianity is that we have the example of Jesus and God the Father to look to in order to do the right thing. Remember the verse about us being sons of God? Sons often look to their fathers for guidance. Not every son has a good father, but as Christians, we are blessed with a perfect and loving Father. We shouldn’t despair about trying to be perfect on our own accord. Our sanctification comes through Jesus and our heavenly Father. So when we are frustrated at our own shortcomings, it is imperative that we look to our Father as our example of perfection, so that by modeling Him, we may love people regardless of whether they are our enemies or not. Don’t be frustrated about our lack of perfection. Be encouraged by the perfection of God.