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Loving your enemies (Matt 5:38-48)

Are you a rhino or a hedgehog? When you are offended, insulted or attacked, do you instinctively fight back and go on the attack? If so, you are a rhino. Or instead, are you tempted to retreat, run away or simply curl up in a ball to avoid further conflict? If that’s you, then you’re probably a hedgehog.

I expect most of us can identify with one of those two responses. Instinctively, most of us have a ‘fight or flight’ response when we feel under threat or attack.

But in our passage today Jesus challenges his followers to behave neither like a rhino nor a hedgehog. When we’re under personal attack he says we should neither retaliate nor simply run away. Instead he calls us to something much more radical – we are to actively love our enemies.

Don’t retaliate against your enemies… (v.38-42)

If you were here last week you’ll know that we looked at Jesus’ challenging teaching on murder, marriage and the words from our mouths. We saw that Jesus intensified Old Testament laws against homicide, adultery and divorce to rule out anger, lust and spoken oaths.

This teaching by Jesus was not only astonishingly challenging, but also a tacit admission by Jesus of his divine authority. Only God incarnate could extend and intensify the inspired laws of the Old Testament. Only God’s Son could claim a higher authority than the prophet Moses.

Today’s passage continues this theme, because Jesus begins by intensifying yet another Old Testament law. In verse 38 he says: “You have heard that it was said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”

The law Jesus quotes comes from Exodus chapter 21. The principle of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ was a principle of proportionate retribution. It was a law designed to constrain the amount of revenge an injured party could impart on their aggressor. It was designed to ensure that any retaliation was measured, just and proportionate to the crime that had been committed. But Jesus words here establish a new principle of non-retaliation, not merely proportionate retaliation.

It is important to note that Jesus is talking here about how we should respond to personal insult and injury:

  • He is not making comment on the criminal justice system or national self-defence. Passages like Romans 13 in the Bible teach governments have a legitimate responsibility to punish crime and defend their citizens.
  • Nor is Jesus saying that we should not defend other people from abuse by others. It is completely right and proper for parents to protect their children, for example, or for the strong to safeguard the vulnerable.

What Jesus is talking about here is how we respond when people do evil against us personally – in other words, when there is no third party involved.

In those circumstances Jesus tells us to resist the temptation to retaliate. Instead we says we are to turn the cheek rather than set in train a spiral of revenge. We are not to harm to others when they have done harm to us. We are not to be rhinos who charge at our rivals. Instead, we are to be like Christ, who let himself be crucified by Roman soldiers, whose blood was shed at the hands of sinful men.

Love your enemies! (v.43-48)

Jesus’ command to turn the cheek and resist retaliation is challenging enough. Resisting a desire to be like a rhino when provoked is going to take self-control, perseverance and prayer.

But in verses 43 and 44 of our passage today Jesus takes things even further. Because we are not to be hedgehogs either! We are not to simply try and avoid our enemies, says Jesus, but to positively love them: ‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’

Zealous first century Jews had a very clear understanding of who their enemies were. The Romans, who occupied their land, were top of their list, followed by sinful Samaritans, tax-collectors and pagan Gentiles.

This hostile attitude was a product of prejudice, national pride and mistaken religious rules. Rules like the one Jesus quotes in our passage today: “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy”. This was a human law, not a divine one, because the words “hate your enemy” never appear in the Old Testament.

So by telling his followers to love their enemies, Jesus wasn’t contradicting what God had said in the past. Rather, he was affirming and extending the Old Testament law of love. Everyone, even our enemies, should be regarded as our neighbour – as people we should strive to love.

If we are honest, there are probably plenty of people we all struggle to love. We may not refer to them as our enemies, but there may be a number of people we know whom we are tempted to ignore, avoid or actively oppose. For example, our list of potential opponents might include:
• Aggressive atheists who ridicule and reject our Christian faith;
• Or we may feel enmity towards people of a different political persuasion to our own (for example remember the Brexit-based antagonism between Leavers and Remainers. Or the hostility between the Yes and No camps in the Scottish independence campaign);
• In our own community, we may view those who are antisocial or rude as our enemies;
• Or we may be tempted to avoid people whose personality simply clashes with ours – sadly perhaps even people within our own family, or within our own church.

As Christians, whenever we have such feelings for people we are to remember Jesus’ command to love them. To love those people universally, unconditionally and indiscriminately, however hard that may be.

So we are to love our enemies. But what does loving our enemies actually look like? Is love just a feeling? No – Jesus isn’t just asking us to conjure up warm, sentimental feelings towards our enemies. Real Christian love is far more practical, and much more demanding, than that. Real love of our enemies is costly and counter-cultural.

Firstly, loving enemies is costly because it is so sacrificial. Loving our enemies can be uncomfortable and difficult. As we heard in verses 39 to 41 today, loving our enemies may involve turning the cheek, giving away our coat or walking the extra mile. Loving our enemies can be costly and time consuming.

You see, loving our enemies invoves being generous to them. Generous with our time, our money, our skills or our possessions. We are to give without any expectation of return. As Jesus says in verse 42 today: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Loving our enemies must also include spending time praying for them. That’s what Jesus himself tells us to do in verse 44 of today’s passage: “pray for those who persecute you” he says. So let us pray for any enemies we have. Pray that God will help us to love them more. Pray that they will appreciate our efforts to build a relationship with them. And most of all, pray that the love we show them they will point them towards the Lord Jesus.

As well as being costly, loving your enemy is also radically counter-cultural. In most societies people only love those who love them in return. Jesus acknowledges this cultural norm in verse 46 of our passage this morning, but challenges his disciples to be different. He says: “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?”

Christian love is to be distinctive by being one-sided. Matthew uses the Greek word ‘agape’ to describe the type of love Jesus is referring to here. Agape is a love that loves without any expectation of it being reciprocated. Agape love is unmerited, unconditional and totally selfless love. A type of love just as radical and counter-cultural today as it was 2000 years ago – yet that is what Christ expects of us.

But why should we bother? So, before I finish, it’s worth noting that our passage today supplies us two reasons to love our enemies. Two motives to make an effort with them, rather than wash our hands of them. Two reasons to be neither a rhino nor a hedgehog.

The first motive is simply obedience to Christ. We need to be clear that today’s passage is a command from Jesus to his disciples – its an instruction, not just a gentle recommendation or a word of advice. In verse 44 Jesus simply says “I tell you: love your enemies”. So if we profess to be Christians – if we consider ourselves disciples of Christ – we will want to obey what he says.

The second motive to love our enemies is to imitate our Heavenly Father. Because in verse 45 today Jesus encourages Christians to imitate his Father’s indiscriminate, unconditional love. As he says there: “our Father in heaven…causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

We are to copy our Father’s character, and imitate his generous, gracious love. A love which even led him to send his Son into our world to be our Saviour. As Jesus himself puts it in our final verse today: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We need the Holy Spirit’s help…

So, as I finish, we are to love our enemies in obedience to Christ and in imitation of our Heavenly Father. But, of course there is one member of the Godhead missing. One member of the Holy Trinity who makes it possible in practice for us to obey Christ and imitate our Heavenly Father’s love.

And he’s the Holy Spirit, who is at work within every believer. He can give us the desire and the ability to love our enemies day by day. The power of God’s Holy Spirit is able to help us love the unlovely, if only we let him. It is the Holy Spirit who produces the fruit of patience, kindness and prayerfulness in our lives. The fruit we all need to love our enemies each and every day. So let’s pray now for his help…

Phil Weston