Matthew 5:43-48 (11)
Jesus has shown, in comparing the righteousness of the Pharisees with that of the kingdom citizen, that unless something dramatic has happened within us this is an impossible standard to achieve. Here, in this last of His six comparisons, He reaches the summit of what the kingdom citizen is to be, perfect.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour’ and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (5:43-48) (NKJV)
The Law definitely instructed the Israelites to ‘love their neighbour’ (Lev 19:18) but the Pharisees assumed, on that basis, as a logical consequence it was OK to hate their enemies. They justified this by referring to God`s judgments on people such as the Ammonites or Moabites who “did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. But the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam; instead the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loved you. You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever.” (Deut 23:3-6). Their reasoning, if they were not to seek their peace and prosperity, then they must be hated. King David`s words, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” (Ps 139:21-22), or Psalm 69:23-28 cemented this view. They did not limit this to those who were God`s enemies but to foreigners or anyone who had done something to them, thus making them an enemy and so excusing hatred. As usual they had added to the Law to justify their sinful actions.
They seemed to have conveniently forgotten God`s words, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:” (Lev 19:34) “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.” (Ex 12:49) The Law was not for justifying personal vendettas but for upholding God`s name and to promote holiness among His people. It was those the action of standing against God and His purposes, as Ammon and Moab had, that David hated. Yet when Saul sought David`s life instead of hating him, David spared him and called him ‘my father.’ (1 Sam 24:11)
The Law did not leave this on a negative note but it gave positive instruction on how they were to deal with their enemies. “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,” (Prov 25:21) “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.” (Ex 23:4-5) Jesus uses the word ‘spitefully’ which means those who have malicious ill-will towards you and He raises the level from just helping them, when they are in need, to seeking to bless them and do good towards them.
When asked who their neighbour was, Jesus told the story of ‘the good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:29-37), purposely contrasting the religious, the ones who should have helped, with the righteous, the enemy, the one who did help. Here in the Sermon on the Mount He is taking us out of the sphere of the religious, the Pharisee, to the righteous, the sons of God.
When my mother died I was sat next to my father, in the funeral car, with Hilary sitting behind us. She said we looked like ‘two peas in a pod’ there is such a strong family resemblance. What Jesus is saying here is that we must display our heavenly Father`s characteristics. ‘His desire has been that they should understand and grasp who they are and how they are to live.’ (D M Lloyd-Jones). God sends sunshine and rain on both good and bad, known as ‘common grace,’ and it is given to all regardless of our standing with God. I remember an African minister coming to speak at the Methodist church and He said how much God must love England because of all the rain He blesses it with. We tend to complain about too much rain or sun and if we are going through a bad time because of un-believers, or even believers, we complain about that too, or worse still, react badly. We need to ask ourselves an honest question. Are we like the world or our Father in heaven?
‘It is not enough for Christians to resemble non-Christians; our calling is to outstrip them in virtue. Our righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees and our love is to surpass, to be more than that of the Gentiles.’ (J Stott) If we are not to settle for mediocrity (lacking any commendable qualities) then we must look beyond the world to Jesus Christ, our King, and His example. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” (Isa 53:7). That is exactly what happened, except He did open His mouth, not to his antagonists but to His Father. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34). ‘It is the love of Jesus Christ himself, who went patiently and obediently to the cross … the cross is the differential of the Christian religion.’ (D Bonhoeffer). “For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life!” (Rom 5:10). In the light of this we no longer see people as enemies but rather those for whom Christ died and we seek their best; which is, salvation through Christ.
Jesus has taken the Law and the Pharisees interpretation of it and raised its requirements for the kingdom citizen. In the light of these six exhortations how do we measure up? Maybe we think we`re doing OK until Jesus hits us with this bomb-shell “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (48). Surely that is an impossibility. John Wesley said: ‘Christian perfection is loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies that no wrong frame of mind, nothing contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words and actions, are governed by pure love.’ Some have believed that Jesus would not have said it if it were not possible but as I read Scripture that does not seem to be the experience of the Apostles. John said those who say they were without sin have no truth in them (1 John 1:8) and Paul said he had not reached perfection but was pressing on towards it (Phil 3:12-14).
The testimony of the saints down the centuries has been that as they seek to live holy lives in the light of God`s holiness they become more aware of their own imperfection.
What Jesus is saying is that if we are looking at the most righteously religious person we know and are trying to emulate them it will always be short of God standards.