Kingdom righteousness in the context of enemies | Matthew 5:43-47

As Jesus moves to conclude his commentary on the surpassing righteousness his disciples shall embody, he says “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”

The first part of Jesus’ statement is a quote from Leviticus 19:18 where the Israelites are commanded to not hate their brethren, countrymen, or the sons of their people, but to love their neighbor as they love themselves. What did this love look like? They were to leave certain sections of their crops for the poor to pick during harvest; they should pay wages when and to whom they were due. They were to act with complete integrity without lying, stealing, or showing partiality instead of fairness. There was to be no mockery of the disabled or any slandering or standing against a neighbor. In these ways and others, each Israelite was made personally responsible for the corporate harmony of the covenant community.

The second part of Jesus’ statement, however, is no Law quote. But considering Israel’s unique sense of heritage and how the land of the people had long been occupied territory with the Roman Empire’s presence creating an atmosphere thick with tension and hostility, it’s easy to see how the circumstances may have helped nurture a resentment or hatred for their enemies that was deemed generally acceptable. While “hate your enemy” was not commanded or explicitly taught, the sentiment was pervasive and everybody generally understood it and acknowledged it’s “when the chips are down” mentality. Jesus did not.

Speaking much to the culture’s contrary, he said “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

Love your enemies. The Leviticus 19 text Jesus referenced had already established what loving their neighbor looked like; Jesus extends its content to be applied also to enemies. That means using our resources to be hospitable or giving them needed sustenance. It means treating them fairly, not getting back at them. It is likely the Jewish community, much as we often do, limited their definition of neighbor to their sphere of likeminded individuals; but as Jesus later conveyed in his story of the good Samaritan, neighbor is determined by proximity, not preference. Even if those in our proximity are enemies.

Pray for those who persecute you. When we tell enemies “I’ll pray for you”, we often say it smugly as something of a retaliatory attempt to seize moral high ground, a sort of self-vindication; if we actually do take time to pray for them, it’s sometimes done with hope they will feel our pain or repent of putting us through it or that they will “see things our way” or that “justice be done”. The Leviticus 19 love was to shape within the individuals of the covenant community a sincere desire to see and effort to make each of their neighbors prosper in holiness and harmony with God, each other, and creation. The same desire and effort for our enemies is nurtured by praying for them. Love and pray; to do for our enemies what we would do for ourselves. But why?

Jesus continued “…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…” This is an echo of Jesus’ earlier peacemakers beatitude, but how or why does loving our enemies and praying for their peace reveal us to be the Father’s children? Jesus explains “for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Both the good and the evil, the righteous and the unrighteous, are creatures who live within and benefit from God’s blessed creation. Creation is a context that connects us all, a familial framework of lifeforms. If we all live beneath the Father’s sun and receive the Father’s rain, we are revealed as sons or agents of the Father by being a brother to creation, evil though it may be. When we love and pray for our enemies, we are participating in the Father’s redemptive work to bring his estranged sons back into the family fold. Love and prayer, for neighbors and enemies, is the work of witnessing redemptive reality.

We all understand the difficulty of what Jesus is calling us to do; in many ways we’re often incredulous to these words. I think Jesus understands that. So he proves his point with some provoking questions: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

If Christ’s kingdom community only loves cliquishly, we neither proclaim nor produce redemptive reality; “what more” are we doing than perpetuating a standard that possesses no cross-shaped magnanimity for bringing humanity into redemptive reality? Participating in redemptive work requires from us a love and prayerfulness that goes the distance, suffering long the hostility of our fellow creation for their sake. When we consider the weight and vastness of eternity, loving and praying for our enemies is not too much to ask. What’s more, when we begin to perceive our enemies as fellow creatures whose redemption Christ is pursuing, we stop seeing them as enemies.

Love and pray. Jesus would do both of these for his enemies while hanging upon the cross. This way of love and prayer for enemies is a cross-shaped lifestyle in which we constantly crucify our “Us vs. Them” prejudices in order to bear witness to what brings us together and restores us as children to the Father’s blessedness.

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